I had heard of the trend of teaching babies some basic sign language several years before having children and found it intriguing. When my son was about five or six months old I was reminded of it when I saw some mothers in my mother’s group signing for things like “milk” and “diaper” to their infants. Some, it turned out, had taken a class on teaching the signs to their babies and others were talking about signing up for the next class.
Unfortunately, the upcoming class was cancelled, but I was still interested, so I looked up some signs online. The website I found (http://www.babysignlanguage.com) recommended starting with just a few basic signs that related to important parts of the child’s day. I started with “mother," “father," “milk," “diaper," “cat," and “eat."
After a short time, I could tell that my son recognized some of the signs, most notably “milk,” which, to him, is equivalent to nursing. But it wasn’t until age eleven months before he actually made a sign back to me - the sign for milk. I was getting a little impatient - after all, he could wave good-bye and the sign for milk was very similar, so I tried something different. Instead of signing to him just before nursing, I also did it while nursing him. The result was amusing: He unlatched and smiled at me, making the sign, then launched into a fit of giggles, as if giddy with the ability to communicate.
Encouraged by this success, I decided to teach him some new signs, this time focusing more on things I knew he was interested in: book, bath, ball, more, finished. It was also around this time that he said his first words: cat and cup. A couple of months passed, during which his fine and gross motor skills were improving rapidly, but he still made no new signs. At the mother’s group, one mother saw me signing to him and asked if he signed back. I told her how he only signed for “milk” and nothing else. Another mother said she’d given up on signing due to the lack of responsiveness of her child. I understood how she felt: I was beginning to wonder if all this was worthwhile or if he’d just be talking before he ever got the signing thing down.
Recently, however, he has had a break-through. He’d been doing a lot of pointing and exclaiming using his favorite all-purpose expression - “dat” - and would get frustrated and cry when I didn’t understand after he did it repeatedly. He was sitting on my lap in the chair where we usually read to him, a pile of books on the table next to it, and he pointed at the pile and held out his hand, palm up. This isn’t the correct way to sign for “book,” but it is close, so I read him a book from the pile. A few days later, I had further confirmation: While we were visiting relatives, he pointed to their bookshelves and made the same sign. It seemed that, while he loved the attention of his relatives, he also missed our quiet alone time; whenever I took him into the bedroom to nurse him or change his diaper, he would point repeatedly to the stack of picture books I’d gotten from the local library and hold out his palm.
A couple of days later, as I was drawing him a bath, he did a one-armed version of the sign for “bath” (he was holding a ball in his other hand). Surprised, I said, “Yes! Bath!” and he gave me a big grin. I knew he enjoyed bath time, but I never knew how much until he began to make the sign - over and over again.
These new signs have been accompanied by some elaborate pointing and gesturing communications. Yesterday, he told me he wanted to listen to some music by dancing (jerky, enthusiastic knee-bends) and pointing to the stereo. Whenever one of the songs I routinely sing to him came on, he would bounce more and smile at me.
We also have a mystery sign. At times, he uses the index finger of one hand to point to the palm of the other. I tried looking this up and it appears that it is not a real sign in ASL, but it seemed so much like one, it left me wondering where he’d picked it up. As far as I can tell it means either, “I want,” or “ball,” as he kept rolling his ball under the couch and then making this sign and pointing under the couch to where the ball was, wanting me to get it for him.
Now I am glad I kept up with the signing. It is exciting to be able to have the beginnings of a conversation with him and he is clearly pleased with himself when he manages to communicate what he wants to me successfully. Just today he made the sign for “more.” I thought he had attempted it a few days earlier, but wasn’t sure; this time it was unmistakable. He’d been too busy playing to pay attention to his snack, so I had laid it aside, offering it again to him whenever he wandered close enough to me. He finally accepted some, then took off again for another part of the room. I resumed working on a craft project for a minute, when I noticed he was back, tapping the tips of his fingers and thumbs together and looking at me expectantly. It is times like these when I can’t wait to see what he will do next.
J LeBlanc is a former high school teacher who resides in Lebanon, N.H. She is currently taking a break from teaching to stay home with her 8-month-old son.
Previous Posts By This Author: Tagging Along