Baby signs, also known as baby sign language, is a specific form of sign language for use with babies and toddlers. While sign language has been used by hearing impaired people for countless generations, it is a fairly new idea for hearing parents to use sign language with children who have no hearing or cognitive impairments. The idea behind this is that very young children are able to effectively use gestures to communicate before they are able to use speech, or at least speech that can be understood by those around them.
This type of communication does not tend to use entire sentences, but rather common words or phrases. For example, a parent or caregiver may ask “Do you want more?” while using the sign for “more.” The child will typically answer back with the same sign, or maybe with the sign for “all done.” It is often surprising to people who see children as young as 9 months old answering their parents when asked if they would like more food, for example.
Baby signs can be used from the moment the baby is born, but should be put into common use by the time the child is eight or nine months old. Some parents have a lot of fun signing to their baby as soon as the baby arrives, while others wait a little longer, and either way is fine, as long as your baby is being exposed to verbal language as well. These gestures are designed to be used along with speech, and not instead of it. Just like speech, children will usually understand signs far before they began producing them, but once your child begins signing, he or she is likely to pick up new signs faster than you thought was possible.
There is some debate over whether or not this form of communication can cause a speech delay. However, if there is any delay, it is not a cognitive one, but simply due to the fact that the child has a reliable form of communication. Signing actually reduces frustration for both child and parent, as communication is easier and happens earlier than it otherwise would. Being able to effectively communicate helps to strengthen the bond that a child has with his or her parents and caregivers, and helps young children learn better emotional regulation. Toddlers, instead of crying in frustration because they can’t communicate with the important people around them, learn that they can get their needs meet without crying or yelling. At some point, every child will switch over entirely to speech, and parents and teachers often find that the children who learned signs first have a jump start on verbal language as well.