When you first begin teaching the sign for EAT, be sure to teach the sign before a meal starts rather than after it starts, as this will confuse your baby into thinking that MORE and EAT are the same, when they aren’t at all. For example, a baby signing EAT repeatedly throughout the meal when they in fact want more food will make your baby think that the two words have the same function. If you haven’t introduced MORE yet, then you could teach EAT during the meal, but even then, it’s probably better to keep them separate in the early stages. Once your baby has both of them figured out, feel free to use them within the same context.
Above: Eat: The fingers and thumb are forced together as if pinching food which is then drawn in and out toward the mouth in the ASL sign for EAT.
Your baby will be accustomed to watching you prepare meals so he will know more or less when it’s time to eat, so just before you are ready to serve the meal ask him if he would like to eat. Say “Would you like to EAT?” and repeat it again “Are you hungry for food and want to EAT?” The sign for eat is done by moving the fingertips toward the mouth several times as if eating something. Always do the sign whenever you say the word. If your baby will allow it, move their hand toward their mouth to show him what the sign means. It’s important to teach this sign when you are ready to provide your baby with food, as they need to learn the immediate association.
Try to teach EAT throughout the day and before each and every time your baby eats. This includes snack times too. Snack times can be spread throughout the day too and make great opportunities to test to see if your baby has caught onto the sign. Naturally, you always need to be at the ready with a snack such as a cracker so you can immediately reward the sign should it occur.
Above: EAT is one of the first signs you can teach your baby. It’s an important one and can be taught before, during and after a meal for best results. In the video you will see some ways we taught EAT. It might seem cruel to withhold food to encourage a sign, but we always stop short of panic. Food can be a good incentive to learn communication. Do step in if baby seems overly frustrated or it’s obvious he won’t come up with the word himself. We stopped the video because we felt we had too much pressure on him so we let him cool off and tried again once we had him in his highchair. The highchair was associated with eating so he was able to come up with the sign. When you teach EAT, try to do it just as your baby is getting hungry rather than when baby is starving.
You should also find other opportunities to teach EAT such as when the dog gets his food, when birds are plucking seeds from a feeder or pulling worms, or when a squirrel is out searching for snacks. You may also involve other members of the house by asking them to do the sign just before a meal. Finally, if you are up to it, make-pretend by offering a teddy-bear some food! Your baby will be amused by all the silliness.
Whatever you do, be sure to skip lessons on teaching the EAT sign when your baby is late for a meal and is too hungry to concentrate. This is also common sense, but nevertheless should be reinforced – never withhold food just because your baby hasn’t done the sign. Yes, you should provide your baby with incentive to sign by pausing, but you should never require your baby to sign in order to get food. If your baby won’t sign at any given moment, then just model the sign for them, or help your baby do the sign by moving their hands for them. It’s not imperative that your baby make signs on their own accord, however, your baby must learn that food follows the sign for EAT, be it by you modeling it for them, helping them do it by moving their hands, or (ideally) them doing the sign on their own. This goes for all signs – feel free to just model the sign whenever your baby won’t do it. Eventually your baby is going to learn that it’s quicker and easier to just do the sign themselves.