How Baby Sign Language helped us to avoid tantrums

I first learned about Baby Sign Language from an old friend in Canada (hi, Michelle!) who did it with both of her kids.  I thought it was interesting but the part that really sold me on it was that she said her kids had never had a tantrum as a result of not being able to communicate what they wanted – because they could always just tell her.

I read got a book on it from the library (honestly I can’t remember which one; there are a lot) and learned that there are a lot of processes involved in speaking; the child has to hear the words, the brain needs to understand what they mean, the vocal chords make a sound, and the mouth and tongue have to make the right shapes to make the sounds into words.  It’s pretty complicated stuff and the vocal chord/mouth/tongue coordination is the last part to come, which means that babies can understand language long before they can speak.  The RIE approach to parenting suggests you tell your baby what you’re going to do to him before you do it precisely because the baby understands – this is why a three month-old will stiffen his neck when you say “I’m going to pick you up now” if you say it routinely before picking her up.

I should say that RIE does not advocate for sign language, instead taking the view that if you observe your baby well enough then you will learn her signals and understand what they want without needing signs.

But I think of sign language as enhancing, rather than detracting from my respectful parenting, on two fronts: firstly, we might understand that Carys is thirsty because she is fussy and it has been a while since she last drank anything.  But how do we know what she is thirsty for without warming up a bottle only to find she wants water?  We don’t need to guess: we just ask her.

baby sign language milk 2

baby sign language milk 3

Secondly, RIE doesn’t seem to allow for the simple joy of communicating to others.  We are a social species and it’s fun to tell other people what we notice.  I’m not kidding when I say that Carys seems to notice almost every plane that goes overhead, whether we’re inside or out.  She sees a lot of birds, too, and now she can tell us which she hears or sees.

baby sign language plane 1

The official sign has more Star Trek-like fingers, but Carys has always signed it with an open hand

baby sign language plane

Anyone notice a theme here? (And eating raisins!  For lunch!)

Why we don’t worry about using official American Sign Language

When I first started researching Baby Sign Language I saw that some signs were different from American Sign Language, which I thought was a bit silly – if you’re going to teach your kid something, why not make it something that’s actually useful once they get older?  Then I read Jane Healy’s excellent book Your Child’s Growing Mind, and learned that we don’t really remember most of what we learn before about age three anyway.  Of course, things remain deep in our subconscious (which is responsible for the most bitter irony I’ve found so far yet in parenting: that your kid will be scarred for life if you don’t address their infant needs, but they won’t remember it so will never thank you for all your sacrifices:-)), and we remember things – like language – that we carry forward in daily life past the toddler stage.  But we won’t remember sign language we learn as a toddler unless we keep using it.

I planned to use sign language as a bridge to spoken language, which means Carys will likely forget it anyway as she learns how to talk – if you plan to do the same, it doesn’t matter what sign you use for what word as long as you can remember it and are consistent.  There are a number of free online resources to help you learn signs (rather than relying on any one invariably incomplete library of signs I just Google “[word] +baby sign language” which usually throws up a video of the sign in question).  It’s helpful to use standard signs where they make sense to you just because it can be hard to think up enough variations of things to do with your hands to represent different items, but you can also modify or even make up signs yourself.  The official sign for ‘dog’ is to pat your thigh with your hand, but Carys and I are almost always hiking when we see dogs, and when she’s on my back she can’t see me pat my thigh.  So we made a pat on the shoulder a sign for ‘dog,’ which she learned quickly.  She also invented a sign for ‘banana’ by herself; we just started to notice that when we mentioned a banana she would often wave her whole arm up and down in the air and now she consistently uses that to mean ‘banana.’

I had always thought that she would learn something useful (like ‘milk’) as her first sign but ‘bird’ was her first sign – completely unnecessary except for the joy of telling me that she saw a bird.Baby sign language bird

I’ve seen a lot of parents in forums asking questions about whether using baby sign language causes speech delay.  Obviously you can never know when your child would have spoken without signing, and you can’t compare across children because they all start speaking at different times.  But the experts think that as long as your signing isn’t incredibly complex (such that it could actually replace speaking), it’s highly unlikely to delay the onset of language.  I’d suggest not using it to try to enhance your child’s intelligence, or even enhance her language abilities later on – chances are it won’t work.  Think of it instead as a tool to enhance communication for the period of time when her brain is able to process language and her hands – but not her mouth – can coordinate a response.  And don’t forget to talk as well – signing shouldn’t replace regular conversation in children and adults with normal hearing.  This is far more likely to be associated with better language development outcomes.

We took the approach of learning just the signs we needed rather than going all-out, so her repertoire isn’t actually that big, but it’s made the world of difference in our ability to give her what she wants when she wants it over the last six months.  Her spoken vocabulary has expanded rapidly in the last two weeks or so; she’s adding one or two new words each day.  She mostly relies on the signs when she knows them; even though her signed words are some of the ones in most regular rotation, the only ones she actually says are ‘more’ (an early one) and ‘all done’ (last few days).

The signs she knows are (all videos available here except the ones linked directly):

We are now definitely in the tantrum phase although I think we’ve gotten off somewhat lightly so far; none yet in public places and only a couple more than a few minutes in duration.  But these tantrums have all been in response to a limit I’ve set – to me understanding her desire and making a decision that I can’t or won’t allow it at that time, and not simply because she can’t get me to understand what it is that she wants.  I find this gives me a great deal of peace in the face of the tears and the screaming: I know the cause and that I have made the decision that prompted it, and I knew before I set the limit that I was willing to hold my ground.  I think that if I wasn’t sure why Carys was having a tantrum I’d be a lot more stressed about it.  Instead I calmly allow her to feel whatever feelings she needs to in response to the limit I’ve set, and then we move on when she’s ready.

Of course, I can’t know that teaching sign language prevents tantrums.  But I do know that I have a mostly-happy toddler who has thrown about five tantrums so far (there is still time…), who is able to ask for what she needs when she needs it, and has been able to tell me about some of the things she’s interested in for seven months now.

If you try it

Don’t buy a book or take a class unless you need more convincing that baby sign language is for you – and definitely don’t buy flashcards.  I have a general philosophy that if there’s a multi million- (or billion-) dollar industry set up to take advantage of a decision I make as a parent then I typically want to try it another way, or find out how to do it for free.  All you need to do is pick 1-3 words when your baby is 6-9 months old, look up the signs online, and start signing to them at appropriate times.  (The online videos are actually better than flashcards, because you see the sign in motion.)

No need for sessions where you ‘drill’ your child on a large array of signs – but if your child points to a plane, sign ‘plane.’  When you offer milk, sign ‘milk.’  It may take 1-3 months (or six, in Carys’ case!) for her to sign back to you the first time, although she’ll likely understand the sign before then.  Introduce the signs you need as you need them; if your child is super-interested in something then she will likely learn the sign very quickly.  We stopped introducing new signs when we repeatedly made ~5 signs that Carys didn’t bother to learn, and aren’t teaching any more now her vocabulary is expanding so quickly, although some babies may pick up 30+ signs – each one is different.  Don’t forget to have fun with it!

Do you want to understand how your child’s brain is developing?

If there's just no way you can get to all the reading on your child's development that you want to do, check out my free four-page summary of Your Child’s Growing Mind by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.

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