Baby Sign Language

Katie Dennert, a mother from Muskego, used baby sign language to communicate with her two daughters. She used it right away with her firstborn, and started with her second born at 6 months old. 

Dennert first learned about baby sign language when a friend gave her a book about it. Dennert liked the idea of using baby sign language because it allowed her to communicate with her children more effectively. Dennert explained that problems are much easier to resolve if the baby has an alternative way to communicate rather than crying.

I have to go potty: Make your hand into a fist with thumb peeking out between the index finger. Hold the fist out and shake it around a little.

“When the baby wants more or doesn’t like what they are given, then they just cry,” Dennert said. “So, instead of crying, they can communicate what the problem was.” 

Communicating with a baby can be difficult for parents. Babies cannot talk, but can only try to communicate by crying and making sounds. Baby sign language allows parents to communicate with their child in a more effective way. Although baby sign language is not an actual language, it uses hand signs to communicate the needs of a child. 

Dennert recommends signs that show gratitude. Some of her favorite signs to use were “please” and “thank you,” so she could teach her children about manners at a young age. She also liked to use “sorry,” because she felt it was a great way to teach about empathy and being remorseful. 

Dennert also recommends that parents read about baby sign language to become more knowledgeable.

“Just be consistent. Get whoever is taking care of the baby on board,” Dennert said. “But starting small, like one or two signs at a time is good, too.”  

Teachers and principals use baby sign language to help communicate with students whom they feel benefit from that type of communication. Lauren Beckmann, principal of St. Robert School in Shorewood, has bachelor’s degrees in psychology and education. Beckmann was first introduced to baby sign language through her studies in child education. 

“I was first exposed to baby sign language, or baby sign language as a tool, for facilitating verbal language,” Beckmann said. 

Beckmann explained that her staff has used baby sign language with students who have Down syndrome in a program the school started called The Grace Program. This program helps meet the educational needs of the students who have intellectual disabilities.   

When a parent or teacher teaches their child baby sign language, they’ll notice there are some signs easier for the baby to remember compared to others. According to Beckmann, the signs related to food are easiest for a child to remember because it is a basic need for them. Other signs that may be easier for babies to remember are ones used to communicate relationships to the baby. 

Gina Flynn is a teacher from St. Robert School in Shorewood who is communicating the word “world” to her fourth grade class.

“Signs related to important relationships, like mommy, daddy, boy, girl, if they have a dog or a cat in the family or any special toys or activities,” Beckmann said. “If a child really likes to play with balls or cars, then you could have a sign for those.” 

But it raises the question about how babies form words from a sign their parents use. 

“Motor development precedes language development or verbal development, because it naturally comes first,” Beckmann said. “Movement comes before verbalization.” 

Although it is almost unlikely, Beckmann warned that it is imperative for parents to watch for any indications that their baby is not attaching sounds to the signs they are learning. 

 Patricia Gondek, an American Sign Language professor at Mount Mary University with a background in ASL linguistics, has worked in deaf education for about 40 years. Gondek offers  advice to parents who are thinking about using baby sign language with their babies.

 “It’s not going to hurt your baby in learning language, and if you have the time and energy to learn it, you could start as early as 6 or 7 months,” Gondek said. 

According to Gondek, children understand the rules of their language by about the age of 3, but children understand language before they can speak. While keeping in mind that baby sign language is used to communicate with a baby, Gondek warned that it is not a language.

“It’s a way of communicating and it’s not a language, so that is one thing I want to caution, because they are not learning American Sign Language, they are learning individual signs in order to communicate,” Gondek said.

World: To do the sign for “world,” if you are right-handed hold your “W” hand on top of your left “W” hand. Move both hands simultaneously. The movement is a circular motion: forward, down, back, up.

Easy resources for parents to learn more about baby sign language, according to Gondek, are books and YouTube videos. 

“There are a lot of books out there and YouTube videos, but I would caution that there are people who are teaching this that don’t have the credentials to be doing that,” Gondek said.

The use of baby sign language, according to Beckmann, is very beneficial for children to learn and use. It is a way of communication that can be used to create new verbal opportunities for children.

“It’s this portal into a whole new world of communication that really is exciting for kids,” Beckmann said. 

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