Signing With Your Breastfed Baby
The sign for milk – opening and closing the fist vertically (like squeezing a cow's udder) – is one of the easiest signs for babies to mentally grasp and to physically perform. The trick to teaching a baby to sign is to find moments when you have their complete attention – when their gaze is focused on you and not distracted. The breastfeeding gaze that we all know and love is one of the easiest times. If you repeatedly put the sign for milk in their visual path as the milk begins to let down, they grasp the concept very quickly.
My daughter began playing with the sign for milk with her own hand starting before a year, but not in a meaningful way. I think she just saw me doing it and thought it looked interesting. Right about a year, she started to sign it consistently as the milk would let down, and within two weeks she made the jump to requesting to nurse by using the sign.
Once they grasp the concept of signing, there's lots of other wonderful ASL or modified signs as well that can be introduced very quickly. Some of my favorites are: more, eat, help (modified), up, down, all done, read, again, yes, no and sleep/tired. I generally use ASL signs, unless the sign is too difficult in which case there are common modified baby signs.
The great thing about the "milk" sign, in particular, is that if you feed on-cue/on-demand, it takes a bit of the mystery out of having to offer nursing all the time. They'll let you know if that's what they want. In my case, it turned out, yes, she really was wanting milk all those times a day! If you are nursing past a year, it's also a great way to teach some "breast manners." The walking but pre-verbal stage is right when your baby will start the delightful habit of coming up to you and trying to lift your shirt right over your head wherever you happen to be, unless you give them some alternate means of expressing themselves!
In terms of introducing sign, I don't believe there is a "perfect" age. I know with our first daughter, we had heard of baby signing, and thought it sounded interested, but had heard that you had to be super-consistent all the time with using the signs for the baby to pick up on them. We didn't think we had the discipline for that, so we skipped it. It turns out that we were misinformed. We did later end up learning sign when her part-time daycare program introduced it when she started at 16 months.
With our second daughter, we knew better, and knew we wanted to sign earlier since we knew the benefits and also wanted the girls to be able to start communicating. We started introducing signs here and there at about 9 months, which is probably about the earliest you'd see any response. We weren't fanatic about it, but tried it every week or so, whenever we'd remember, until we felt we were seeing some glimmer of recognition. Then we got a little more serious about it. Once we knew she was grasping it, we introduced lots of signs, and watched in wonder as it took hold and her little world broadened almost overnight!
Some parents are concerned that signing will delay speech. We were concerned about this as well, when our 16-month old was just starting to really talk and we thought the signing at her daycare might regress her. In fact, just the opposite is true!
In some way, many children seem to be able to more quickly access the physical ability to sign faster than the language center to form a word. The sign comes out first and seems to "organize" them to be able to then access the word. But what is missing is the frustration that toddlers feel while waiting for that language to happen that can lead to yelling and hitting! With our little one, we were so excited when she started signing because we thought – Great! Now we can fill that months-long gap between the ability to sign and talk. But the surprise was ours when we found the same effect, just sooner. She actually didn't sign exclusively for that long, because the signing brought on the talking earlier and more confidently, and by 13 months, she was talking more than our first had at an older age! (There were times when we have joked that we regret "teaching her to talk" so early, because she seems to expect to be listened to!)
There are lots of great signing programs out there for parents, both in person (like Baby Signs®), or for purchase for home use. However, I'm not certain that any of these are really necessary unless it particularly suits your learning style. The main thing is just to learn the signs yourself so that you can do them. My personal recommendation for this would be to purchase the "Signing Time" DVDs. This is a PBS program that doubles as outstanding children's programming (one of the few programs we let our daughters watch). The first three DVDs ("My First Signs," "Everyday Signs" and "Playtime Signs" will teach you most of what you need to know and your kids will eventually love the programs too. (They also seem to offer now a specific "Baby Signing Time" set. I have not seen these, but they may support the goal of teaching young babies more directly than the programs I have seen). My 5-year old is crazy about Signing Time, which we have on our DVR, and is truly learning a second language with a signing vocabulary of literally hundreds of words.
Signing can be a fantastic tool to continue the close, attached relationship that breastfeeding begins as your child starts to move from babyhood to toddlerhood.
Signing Time Volume 1-3 DVD Gift Set
Baby Signing Time DVD Gift Set
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