Sign language for babies a ‘great tool’ for brain development, expert says
Mother of two Jessica White has been using American Sign Language (ASL) since she was just a baby. As a CODA – the child of a deaf adult – White has been around sign language for her entire life.
“My mother is deaf and started signing with me and my sister when we were newborns. It was around four months old that we started to respond back to her with something but we would have been exposed to sign language since we were born,” she explains.
White, now the manager of Deafblind Community Services with CNIB Ottawa, says having a mother who is deaf was “the best thing that could have ever happen for me.”
“Obviously, it has afforded me the job that I have, but it also provided so many amazing experiences,” she says. “Growing up, we really were exposed to a lot of deaf culture, we went to lots of events and we’ve been interpreting for my mom since we were two years old.”
When she became a mother herself, White said it was important to teach her own children sign language from a young age, adding she believes it’s a useful skill, whether there is an actual communication need or not.
“A comment that I had from many friends would be, ‘your kids don’t have the same temper tantrums, they just always seem to be so chill.’ I really afford that to having sign language as a baby because they were always able to tell me if they were hungry, if they were tired, if their diaper was dirty or what have you, because I had set them up to have those signs right from the beginning,” White explains.
“It’s an avenue for communication when the verbal one isn’t available. When your baby is four months old, you’re not expecting them to tell you ‘I’m hungry,’ so I think that’s why baby signing has just flourished because it gives people a way to communicate with their child earlier.”
Laura Berg, president and founder of My Smart Hands Inc., agrees that teaching children sign language can provide a wealth of benefits.
“I think, as parents, we’re often looking for fun and educational tools to use with our children and using sign language with babies is a great tool to help with their brain development,” she says. “Plus, if parents take baby sign language classes, it’s a fun way to engage with their babies and socialize with other parents.”
When it comes to a baby’s ability to learn sign language, Berg says it’s easy. The hardest part is with the consistency of the parents.
“It’s just as easy as teaching a baby to wave bye-bye. It’s a matter of being repetitive and consistent – every time you say the word, you do the sign. If you are consistent, it’s easier for babies to pick up the signs,” explains Berg.
To get started, Dominique Spencer, a certified Wee Hands Instructor and speech language pathologist, says to begin with the little things.
“I typically recommend starting to use a few functional signs with your baby, which are common words in your daily routines – words like more, milk, bed, bath, all done, book, mommy, daddy, diaper,” she explains.
Spencer says, if you start with the sign for milk, then you would make the sign before, during and after the feeding activity.
“It’s time to drink your milk. You are drinking milk. That is good milk. You are all done drinking milk. If you sign one new word three times during the activity and baby is drinking milk six times a day, that gives you 18 opportunities to use the sign for milk in just one day.”