A friend of mine–who happened to give birth to a son 4 days before me–made some hand gesture to her baby. She then proceeded to bottle feed him.
Curiously, I asked her what that motion was. She said it was sign language for “milk.” She would pump her fist while saying the word, and if he was hungry, he would respond by laughing at the sign. And if he wasn’t, he’d ignore it.
I was amazed. And in this dog-eat-dog world, I suddenly found myself feeling very behind. I happen to have an overactive imagination, and in those seconds, I pictured her future 1 year old signing away full sentences while mine let out strange screeching sounds that would make penguins feel proud.
I had to get on top of this.
And so began some research. I went to the public library, and came across a book and DVD combo called Sign with your Baby by Joseph Garcia. Amazon reviewers found it helpful, so I sat down with my husband to watch it.
It was fascinating! There were several families featured who used sign language with their babies. In a high chair, a baby signed “more” for an extra portion of food. While reading a book, a baby signed “jump” at a picture of a kangaroo. While on a swing, a baby signed “more,” while a tired mom signed “finished” or “all done.” But the moment that made my husband’s and my heart melt was when a father left the room, and his baby signed the word for “daddy” and then “more.” “More daddy.”
Did we want our pre-speech daughter to one day sign to us?
Hell, yeah! It was worth trying.
While watching the video, I kept thinking of my niece. While we were visiting my husband’s sister over Thanksgiving Break, her 15-month old daughter would repeatedly come by her side and whine. All my sister-in-law could do was say in a desperate voice, “What? What is it? What do you want?”
If her daughter knew how to sign what she wanted, it would have saved them both from frustration. My husband and I decided to jump on board the baby sign train in an attempt to avoid future tantrums.
While in grad school, working on his thesis, Joseph Garcia found a lot of research done on deaf children and their language development. He, however, was interested in hearing adults using signs with hearing children. After extensive field research and using signs with his two sons, he came to the conclusion that parents can communicate with their infants using signs well before comprehensible speech develops at 16-18 months.
He describes the process of teaching/learning signs here:
Let’s say you make a particular motion during a certain daily activity, such as eating. Soon your infants associate that movement with the situation or activity that was taking place when the motion was introduced. They begin to experiment with their own hands and discover they can replicate the movements you make. Receiving reinforcement from you, babies quickly learn that by making this motion, they can communicate their needs and wants.
Because babies have no memories prior to 7 months, he advises waiting till then to start signing. As luck would have it, we watched the video when our daughter was 7 1/2 months old.
He recommends starting with 3 signs: eat, more, and milk. Before I feed my daughter solid food, I sign to her that it’s time to eat. One or two times in between, I stop, wait, and when I notice her getting antsy, I sign “more?” And before and after I nurse, I sign “milk.” I verbally say the three words as well.
Once she starts making those signs or in a couple of months (whichever comes sooner), I’ll gradually add more. We’ve been at it for 2 weeks now, and I’m not sure she understands what we’re doing. But we’ll be patient.
The rewards in this case are worth a few months of feeling silly while making hand gestures in front of our baby’s confused face.