ASL can help babies communicate before they talk so that you can escape temper tantrums.
Hearing your baby start talking is one of the biggest joys for a new parent. But getting to that big moment comes after months of anticipation — when are those first words finally going to come?
While every child learns to speak at a different time, one thing that can help them communicate sooner and potentially speed up their verbal development is teaching them American Sign Language.
“The brain is very elastic and able to communicate before our speech even develops, which allows sign language to be a mode of communication prior to the first word emerging,” said Paula Lemane, pediatric audiologist with the Division of Rehabilitation Medicine at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
Some parents worry that babies who sign will rely solely on gestures to communicate, rather than learning how to talk. However, research shows that communicating with signs doesn’t interfere with typical speech development. Some verbal development experts say this approach may actually foster language skills.
“The data are very clear that facilitating the child’s communication in any way will help their ultimate growth in language and further their communication skills,” said Elizabeth Crais, PhD, speech-language pathologist and professor and coordinator of PhD Studies in the division of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
“And as soon as the child learns the word for something, they drop the sign language completely because it’s so much faster for them to get their needs met by speaking,” she said.
Lemane said that signing can be taught early and that babies as young as 6 months have been taught to sign.
Speaking, on the other hand, generally doesn’t occur until children are at least 12 months old, with most children learning a few more words between 15 and 18 months and speaking simple phrases by 24 months of age.
Children begin comprehending language much sooner than they have the ability to verbalize. Learning to express their basic needs through sign language can help toddlers ask for what they want and ease the frustration (read: tantrums) that can come with an inability to speak, said Crais.
“By teaching kids gestures, they begin to learn words faster. They begin to pick up the notion of things like ‘more,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘give me,’ and ‘pick me up,’ and can map those concepts to real words over time,” she said.
First, learn the American Sign Language gestures for simple words and phrases that relate to your baby’s life. “More,” “Yes,” “Potty,” and “Drink” are all ideal places to start, said Lemane.
Then, begin teaching your baby that sign by placing your hands over theirs and doing it together at the right moment.
For example, CHLA speech pathologist Susan Silbert suggested in a recent blog post that if you’re blowing bubbles around your baby, enthusiastically ask your child, “Do you want more?”
Then, bring your child’s hands into the sign for ‘more’ while saying “more,” and reinforce the concept by blowing bubbles immediately after.
Repeat the process, gradually spacing out the time between asking if they want more and helping them with the sign until they start to grasp it on their own.
“It’s very important to use the verbal word with the sign,” said Lemane. “Signing and speaking at the same time can help with language development.”
Most children will begin using the signs in about three to four weeks, she added. But don’t get discouraged if it takes a bit longer.
“Some children may need more than a few weeks. Consistency and persistency from the parents will help children’s ability to communicate using sign language,” said Lemane.
American Sign Language is useful for babies to learn because it’s understood by a wide variety of people. However, if informal gestures work better for your family, that can be just as effective in helping kids learn to communicate, said Crais.
“There’s this whole other category called symbolic gestures, like moving your hand into a circle and bringing your mouth to indicate drink or bringing closed fingers to your mouth to convey eating, that kids tend to learn around 9 to 12 months,” she said. “Use some of these gestures to help them learn how to speak.”
Even if it takes your child longer than average to learn to talk, the ability to communicate through signs can go a long way toward relieving their frustration (as well as yours!) as you get them what they need.