Many of you have heard about using sign language with babies. First, what is sign language? Sign language is defined as a language which uses manual communication with hand shapes, body language and facial expressions to express a speaker’s thoughts. You may have also heard conflicting information about why it is recommended. I would like to clear up any misinformation and explain why speech therapists are HUGE advocates of sign language. Here are my top 5 reasons that I recommend using sign language with babies and toddlers.
1. Sign language introduces the reciprocal nature of communication
Sign language not only gives babies and toddlers the ability to communicate their wants and needs before they are using verbal language, but it also introduces the back and forth essence of communication. Communication is reciprocal in nature. It is a dance of listening and then responding. When a child signs, the parent responds. This is the foundation of all communication-you communicate and I respond, or vice versa. Sign language introduces this concept early on and gives babies and toddlers the ability to practice this concept before they are using verbal language. Once they begin to talk, they will already be familiar with how communication worlds. They will know that if their caregiver speaks to them, they will be expected to respond. Sign language does a beautiful job of setting up the foundation for successful communication.
2. It enhances expressive language skills
Parents get a LOT of conflicting information these days. We are all so busy trying to do the “right” thing for our kids that we take in too much information and we aren’t sure which information is correct.
I’m here to set the record straight on sign language. I have heard many parents express the fear that if they teach their children to use sign language, they will only use sign and not learn to talk. This could not be further from the truth. Research actually shows that sign language supports language development and most children who use signs are talking earlier rather than later. Language development is comprised of two primary parts: receptive language (the understanding of language) and expressive language (how someone expresses thoughts and ideas). Various studies have shown that the children who were taught sign language as babies and toddlers have higher scores in both expressive and receptive language development. When you are signing with your child, you always use the word verbally as well as the sign. You are never simply using the sign, so verbal language is always modeled and encouraged. When a word is taught with a movement of sign, children have been shown to better be able to remember and understand the word. Various areas of the brain are stimulated when using sign language and verbal language together, rather than simply using the word itself. Children will often use a sign initially and then graduate to using the sign and the word together. Eventually, the signs fade out as they are consistently using the word verbally. The use of the sign and the word together enhances vocabulary and understanding of the word.
3. It gives children a way to communicate before they are able to use verbal language-thus reducing frustration.
Most parents have been in a situation where their child is trying to communicate something to them, but they are unable to understand them.
This usually results in crying, a tantrum or the child going fully Verca from Charlie’s Chocolate Factory.
This creates a power struggle and frustration for the child and their caregivers. The child so badly wants to be able to express their wants and needs and the parents are desperate to understand them. This is where sign language would be a great alternative to the usual guessing game that parents play trying to figure out what their child wants. Pre-verbal children are still able to communicate their feelings and desires if given the tools to do so. Sign language gives them to opportunity to identify objects, communicate wants and needs and share feelings. An 11 month old baby many not be able to tell her parents that she is hungry verbally, but she can use the sign for eat. A 16 month old toddler may not be able to tell his mother that he’s tired and ready for a nap, but he can use a sign. What once could have been a frustrating time, can now be a powerful way for your little one to express themselves. If you find that you and your little one are getting frustrated by not being able to communicate with one another, I would urge you to consider trying sign language.
4. Sign language is easy to use in your daily routines.
Some parents have been hesitant to begin sign language because they don’t feel they are experts at using it themselves. You do not have to be fluent in ASL (American Sign Language) to use signs with your child. The end goal is not for you to communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing community; although that would be wonderful. The goal is for children and their caregivers to be able to communicate with each other. You don’t have to use signs perfectly and neither does your child. If you know what they are trying to communicate: that’s all that really matters. Most young children will approximate signs, which means they will attempt the sign, but it may not be perfect. This is perfectly acceptable and expected. Sign language is so easy to use throughout your daily routine. There is a sign for virtually everything and you can model the signs you want to encourage during play, mealtimes, bath time or whenever feels appropriate.
5. Sign language can be used with children of varying abilities
Sign language is a great method of communication for children of all abilities. Typically developing children can use sign language effectively as well as children who have delays or various disabilities. Children who are medically complex or who have special needs such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, Cleft lip/palate, developmental delays and various other needs can benefit from sign language. It can give them the ability to express their wants and needs if verbal language is not accessible or while working towards verbal language.
Children with communication barriers can benefit greatly from using sign language as a tool to communicate by fostering relationships with others, reducing frustration and building positive self-esteem by being able to express themselves. I’d like to use the example of my nephew Everest who was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. He has had his lip repaired; however, his palate (the roof of his mouth) is still not fully closed. This makes it difficult for him to use verbal language effectively as he is not able to correctly shape sounds and air flow to produce all of the sounds we need to form words. He has some verbal language, but will need his palate repaired before he is able to really use verbal language to the best of his abilities. Sign language has been life changing for him because he is now able to express his wants/needs as well as his feelings and ideas. Here is a video of him learning the sign for oatmeal (It is actually the sign for cereal). Watch the pride and joy on his face as he is able to express what he wants to eat.
The above video is why I’m so passionate about sign language. Prior to learning sign language, Everest was becoming so frustrated that he would pull his hair out. Now he can express himself clearly and has gained so much self confidence.
If I’ve convinced you to give sign language a try, stay tuned for my next installment explaining how to introduce sign language to your child.