Language development and baby sign language

Baby signing "toilet"

A common question about baby sign language is: “Will using signs mean my baby is less interested in talking?” Well, the answer is a big no! It’s quite the opposite actually.

Your baby is able to master using gestures as a way of communicating well before their vocal skills are developed for speech. This means they can have the ability to let you know what they are thinking or feeling before they can tell you with words. It is like bridging a gap in communication for them, although signing will continue to bring them many benefits long after they start talking.

Your baby learns to speak by observing you using words in combination with gestures, tone and facial expressions. Introducing signing enhances your baby’s language development experiences by adding another dimension to their learning; it makes it fun and keeps them interested by really capturing their attention.

Within the first 3-4 months, babies realise that when they make noise, people respond. When a parent or caregiver responds to a baby’s cries, the baby begins to trust her means of communication, because her needs are being met. In the second 6 months of life, babies begin to babble in the language of their parents and other caregivers. Their motor skills are also beginning to develop rapidly.

Babies and toddlers do not understand words out of context, so is important to use signs when they are relevant throughout your day and to always say the word whilst performing the sign.

By 18-24 months, toddlers begin to use action words. These words express what they see or want, leaving out adjectives and other grammar. They may come out with short phrases such as ‘Mummy go’, or ‘Shoes on’. Babies and toddlers also speak through gestures and tone of voice. What they do physically may be as important as what they actually say.

When toddlers are mastering their speech skills signing is a great way for them to get their point across when they can’t find all the words to express what they want to say.

As your baby develops language skills and learns to communicate in their first year they may:

  • respond to you when you talk by making noises or becoming quiet
  • coo, gurgle and babble (from 4 months)
  • respond when you say her name (at around 5 months)
  • say ‘ah goo’ or another combination of vowels and consonants (at around 6 months)
  • imitate some of the sounds and gestures that you make (from about 8 months)
  • play with making sounds – for example, she might try different sounds, pitches and volume
  • make longer sequences of sounds, some of which have the tone and rhythm of normal speech (at around 8 months)
  • say ‘muma’ or ‘dada’, although she might not necessarily be talking about mum or dad (around 9 months)
  • put two vowel sounds together (from 8 months)
  • imitate sounds such as coughing, laughing, clicking, or making ‘raspberries’
  • enjoy games such as peekaboo and other action games
  • use gestures to respond to or initiate a conversation
  • communicate with purpose, mainly to request, insist, refuse, reject or greet
  • ask for something by pointing or looking at a person and then at something she wants
  • say a few words with a clear meaning, such as ‘muma’ or ‘dada’, to refer to Mum or Dad (at around 12-14 months)
  • indicate ‘no’ with a shake of the head (from 10 months)
  • understand very simple instructions with verbal and visual cues – for example, handing you a toy when you say ‘ta’ and hold your hand out to her.
  • know and use about 10 words (at 15 months).

There’s a lot of variation among children when it comes to talking. Some children will still not say much even by the time they’re 2.

Playing different games involving signing is a great way to help expand your toddler’s vocabulary. Many toddlers still enjoy learning new signs long after they start talking, they may also love to join in teaching a new baby brother or sister signs.

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