When it comes to infant communication, before having a baby I doubted the value of infant sign language to healthy children. I mean, babies communicate in their own way, right? Through cries, responses, looks. When spoken language has so many challenges why add to it the difficulty of trying to learn and remember signs? I had learned of its benefits to children who have learning disabilities, hearing impairment, or autism – in all of these cases sign language has been found to greatly enhance the development of speech in children. But I wasn’t sure of its utility for children who did not suffer from these challenges. Well, consider me educated. The funny thing about baby sign language –like elimination communication, breastfeeding, diapering, and everything else I seem to be learning about little L– is that even signs can come to us naturally, if you can bring yourself to see them.
My quest to use sign language with L came the way it likely comes to other moms: through purchasing a baby sign language book. After getting seriously overwhelmed with the number of signs out there, I began to teach L a specific few, such as “milk,” “eat,” “change diaper,” and “more,” and then let my efforts quickly fizzle out. I mean, hey, L was starting to say the lovely words that he has learned, such as Bah, Bah Bah, Baaaa, Baw, and Bubbles ;-). But a book sale at school led me to order a sign language board book, which quickly introduced L to the signs for “Ball” and “Light,” after which – when shown pictures – he began to associate the signs with the objects.
As he became more aware of the world around him I started using signs without even thinking about it. For example, L became obsessed with “Buuhh” (as in “Birds”). While showing him pictures of birds in his “Time for Bed” book, I would say, “What sound does the birdie make? Tweet tweet!” At the same time I would peck my thumb and forefinger together as a tweeting bird. Very quickly, L began to follow this motion. Newly revived by this interest in the 4-5 signs L was using, I dug out the baby sign language book and was surprised to see that the sign for bird was almost exactly what I had been doing without thinking about it. Similarly, a lot of infant sign language, which I believe is based on American Sign Langauge, is intuitive. You just have to take the time to think about what sign or gesture you may associate with an object or action and then start using it. While I am trying to use the “proper” signs for new words, I imagine that it would be possible to create one’s own signs and word associations. But it’s good to know that so many are so easy – such as “book,” which involves the simple gesture of opening and closing one’s hands as though you were opening a book. L finds it so much fun to copy my hand movements and expressions that it all becomes just another part of our game-playing together.
When you think about it, signs are everywhere. Simply shaking your head “No,” which a child learns very early on, is in its essence a sign!