I often get asked, “What signs should I teach my baby?”
Easy beginner words like MILK, MORE, ALL DONE, MOMMY, and DADDY are an easy start, but some parents aren’t sure what signs to pick next. Don’t worry, there are endless ways to incorporate American Sign Language into your daily lives, and choosing your first round of signs is easy!
I find a two-fold approach in choosing signs is always successful: some for you and some for baby. In other words, pick some signs that are routine-based, and also pick some signs that reflect what your baby is interested in. Remember, sign language is the bridge between communicating with your pre-verbal baby until they can speak, so pick signs that help name what’s happening in your day (routines) as well as what your baby wants to talk about (the fun stuff).
So signs like DIAPER, EAT, BATH, BED, UP, etc, are great choices for describing what’s happening or about to happen –everyone loves to know what’s happening next, even babies. Spend time talking about and naming what you’re doing, and your babies will soon learn your natural routines and feel calmer and more included in the daily schedule. I’ve always said, “Happy baby, happy family” (sigh), and I still believe that’s true.
And also pay attention to what your baby is telling you! Do they love a particular TOY or object in a BOOK you always have around? Do they giggle when they see DOGS outside on your strolls? Do they tap at the FISH tank in your house? Do they stare at certain colours, toys, anything? Then name it! Sign it! Discuss it! This is your chance to connect deeply with your babies because they will know you are noticing something they want to tell you, and you are responding. Bam! That’s communicating! You are an awesome parent and an outstanding communicator.
My daughter, Ella, noticed BIRDS while we were on neighbourhood strolls. I, of course, did not notice BIRDS; I was staring straight ahead, viciously sleep-deprived most days and barely picking up my own feet, but my baby was mesmerized by birds in the trees. She was always watching them flit around above us and listening to them chirp away. I hadn’t really noticed how much Ella loved watching birds until I saw her craning her neck to still face the trees after I had turned the stroller around to head home from the park.
I finally realized she was pointing at the birds and I had a mini-AHA! moment. I promptly taught her the sign for BIRD and started talking about those birds: “Hey, I see all the BIRDS! Look at the BIRDS! How many BIRDS do you see?” Her response was almost feverish, and a truly triumphant look came upon her face. She knew I knew what she wanted to talk about! And so began a massive daily dialogue about birds: birds in the trees, birds up high, birds down low, birds by the pond, birds in books, birds chirping outside every morning. I could visibly see how much she wanted to tell me about the birds, and it was fantastic. I’m guessing your baby will be feverish about something around you, too. Keep an eye out, and you’ll find your next sign.
Successful early communication with babies involves some mindful decisions about what to say, but it’s not tricky. Think about the words that will help you name your daily routines, and also be very aware of what your baby is interested in. These words will quickly become your arsenal of vocabulary to work on. It will build naturally as your baby grows, and as you make more routines and do more activities together. Always say the words aloud to your baby as you sign them, and repeat often to maintain context.
Oh, and please allow me to introduce you to our family’s new pet bird, Lucky!
Lucky was rescued from a nearby alleyway by friends who couldn’t keep her. Both my kids are thrilled that we adopted a bird, but it’s especially cool to pull a favourite word from my daughter’s first roster of signs into her life as a big kid.
What does your baby want to talk to you about?
To sign BIRD in American Sign Language, tap your index finger to your thumb a few times, like the beak of a bird.