Catching your baby wanting is like lying in wait, preparing to pounce of the right moment to introduce signs. It’s spontaneously and is unforced and happens by following your baby’s natural rhythms and curiosity. As a teaching method, it also falls into the labeling category since your baby is looking for the names of things around them. You’ll know that your baby wants something because they will reach for it, perhaps over and over again, may bounce up and down, or whine for it. Other times your baby will coax you over so you can grab it for them. Babies who want will indicate, point, and will otherwise do whatever they can to get you to notice what they are interested in. Because your baby is so keen on an object, this is the perfect chance to teach them the sign for it.
Above: I’m holding back in this video because I want to give him some incentive to use the sign for HELP. From playing with him, I know he wants the door opened, but even then, I wait and encourage him to use the sign. This will produce better communication patterns in the future. When you do insist on a sign, be sure to reinforce it right away if possible and also avoid unnecessarily creating frustration. For example, my son had a difficult time coming up with the word HELP so I assisted him. This isn’t a failure, but rather a learning opportunity. So if your child is struggling to find the words, step in and give them some assistance.
Often, babies will do this when they recognize things they know the signs for already so this is a great time to remind them to do the signs by asking them what it is they see. If it’s a new item and you can’t figure out what it is they want, then you can play 20-questions and go around the room trying to figure it out. Try pointing at things, or even pick them up. You can also try verbally saying the words for things as sometimes a baby will recognize the word in a receptive sense. When you finally guess correctly, your baby will tell you through their nonverbal expression – they’ll smile, reach extra far out, or will bounce with joy.
Another technique to discover what they are interested in is to pick your baby up and play warmer and colder as you move them toward the object they are interested in. Whatever method you use, just be sure to teach the sign for the object so you can take advantage of your baby’s interest and motivation, and also avoid the frustration your baby experiences by not being able to request it. If you don’t know the sign, try to look it up quickly before your baby loses interest. If that’s not possible because a baby sign language dictionary is not handy, then tell your baby what is verbally. When you have time, be sure to look the sign up, reintroduce the object, and teach it to them.