Is that the "I'm hungry!" cry, or the "I'm wet!" cry? If you've found yourself trying to interpret your baby's wails only to have her scream louder with each bottle or toy offered, you're not alone. Many new parents find themselves desperate for the day their little one can express her feelings with words. If she was hungry, thirsty, sick, or just plain ol' tired, you'd know it—and be able to respond to her needs.
Curb the frustration and learn to understand your baby before she utters her first word. Since infants develop the muscles in their hands before those required for speech, many parents are turning to sign language to close the communication gap. Babies quickly learn to shake their head no, nod their head yes, wave bye-bye and stretch their arms to be picked up, proving they're capable of speaking with their hands.
Wendy Jensen, author of Sign Language for Babies and Beyond, says, "Parents start talking to their babies as soon as they are born and signing is no different. Parents can start combining speech with signs right away. However, babies will probably not start producing their own signs until they are between six to twelve months of age. Every baby is different and will develop on his or her own timetable."
Not only will you be teaching your baby to express herself, you'll also be teaching her a second language. "Learning any second language offers numerous benefits to a child. A new language helps to re-wire and stimulate a child's brain, increasing cognitive development," says Jensen. "Sign Language has even more benefits because of the visual nature of the language. Sign language utilizes both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, causing the language center of the brain to grow. Because of this, more synapses, or brain connections are developed and a child's IQ is increased." In fact, a study by the National Institute of Health found that teaching baby signs increases your child's verbal development and increases the bond between parent and child.
So, how can parents get started? Teach sign language by simply using the motions as you talk to your baby. Successfully instructing your baby will take patience and repetition, but when she mimics your gestures, it'll be worth it. Familiarize yourself and your baby with the following ten signs, representing basic needs, that you'll use frequently.
- Eat. For "eat", put your hand near your mouth as if you're putting food into it. Remember repetition is the key to success, so when you're eating, use the "eat" sign and say, "We're going to eat. Do you want to eat? Let's eat this applesauce."
- Drink. The only person who knows when your baby is thirsty is your baby, so teach her the sign for "drink" and you'll be able to quench her thirst quickly. Just tip an imaginary glass to your open lips as if you're drinking. When she gets this sign down, you can move on to more specific ones like milk or juice.
- More. If she finished that bowl of bananas and is whimpering, chances are she wants more. Touch all of your fingertips to each thumb and tap your fingers of each hand together twice.
- Done. Instead of waiting until she throws her spaghetti on the floor to signal she's done, teach her this sign. Place both open hands in front of your chest, palms facing in, fingers pointing up. Turn your hands with a quick movement to end with your palms facing out. Talk about saving yourself one big mess!
- Mom. Sometimes your daughter will just want Mama, so make it easier for her to signal for you by taking the thumb of your open hand and tapping your chin twice.
- Dad. Don't forget about Dad. When your little one's looking for some daddy bonding time, use the thumb of your open hand to tap the side of your forehead twice.
- Change. We'd all love to have our baby potty trained ASAP, so help her along by teaching her this ever important sign. Rotate both of your fists back and forth and when you're done, be sure to sign "done", so she knows the diaper change is over.
- Please. A sign that not only teaches your baby to communicate, but also teaches her manners? Win-win. Get her started on etiquette early—just rub your hand over your chest in a circular motion.
- Thank you. It doesn't hurt being polite, so be sure to teach your baby how to say thank you, too by touching your lips then moving your hand out as if you were blowing a kiss.
- I love you. Only you know your baby best and can choose the right words to start with, but we all can't wait to hear those three words, I love you. Just use your index finger to point to yourself. Then cross your fists over your chest, then point to your baby. When your baby has this one down, you can seal it with the best communication of all—a giant hug!
When you get these signs down, teach ten more and soon you and your little one will be communicating constantly, eliminating the need to pull out your hair in frustration when you hear her wail. The ability to respond to her cries effectively will lead to a happier, calmer life for you both.