Updated: Jul 19, 2021
As a speech pathologist, I’m often asked about the value of teaching babies to sign. When we are eagerly anticipating our child’s first words it can seem counterintuitive to be actively teaching them to sign. Parents are often concerned that signing will take over and their child will take longer to learn to speak.
Signing is simply adding a gesture to represent a word. When we teach a child a sign, it never replaces talking. We always say the word we are signing, with the expectation that the child will say the word when they are ready.
Here are some great reasons to consider signing with your child.
Signing supports speech and language development and does not hinder it.
Signing gives your child the opportunity to learn and use a word before they are physically able to say it.
Your child can express their needs and wants without the need to whinge. For example, a child who can ask for ‘more’ with a sign is less likely to resort to grabbing and whining for more of what they want.
It can help your child overcome frustration at not being able to communicate with words.
Teaching your child keyword signs can help them better under instructions.
It’s a great way to teach social expectations with words such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’
Your child may start combining signs to make phrases before they are able to say phrases.
There are longer-term benefits for family communication. A quick sign to a teenager across a room can remind them to say ‘thank you’, or help you make a request for action. I love it that I can sign words like coffee, tea, food, help please to my own teenagers and they know what I want and need!
When should you introduce signing?
As young as 6 months your baby will be closely watching your face and actions. They may not be ready to sign on their own just yet but it’s never too early to show them a sign or two.
By around 8 months of age, your baby may begin to copy your signs. Their version of the sign will be far less coordinated and be more of a whole-hand movement, however, you will be able to pick up on what they are saying to you. Around 10-14 months of age, most babies will be signing independently.
How to teach your child to sign
Model the signs you want them to learn. Use the sign every time you use the word. For example, if you are teaching ‘more’, make sure that you use the sign every time you say ‘Do you want more? Can I have more? He has more __’ etc.
Help your child make the sign. Hold their hand to quickly help them make the action. A baby will not have the fine motor skills to position fingers but a whole-hand or fist movement in front of their chest will teach them this is where the sign for ‘more’ is made. This is true for signs such as ‘thank you’ (moving hand away from chin), ‘please’ (moving hand straight down from chin) or food / eat (tapping hand on chin).
Make sure you say the word as you do the sign or help your child perform the sign.
Repeat often. Repetition is the key to learning. You will be surprised how quickly your child will begin to copy you.
Practise the signs in everyday routines like bath time and when eating.
Reward your child for using a sign with natural consequences. For example, if your child signs ‘more’, give them a little bit more of what they are asking. If your child signs ‘finished’ when eating then take away her plate.
Teach other family members the signs so they can participate too.
Which signs should I start with?
Signs that help a child feel a sense of agency or control over their situation are very powerful. These include ‘more’ and ‘finished’.
Signs that help your child make requests such as milk, drink, eat, help and signs that support social development such as please and thank you are also very valuable to add to your child’s repertoire.
You can teach any signs you like that fit with your child’s experiences and needs. Check out the Auslan Sign bank for a comprehensive guide to the signs used in Australia.
If you want to know more about keyword signing or you would like to learn how to teach your child signs then we’re here to help. At Newcastle Speech Pathology we love to see parents equipped with the knowledge and skills to help their child become a confident communicator.
Contact us on (02) 49489800 to find out how we can help.