Some babies will have 20 signs that all pretty much look the same, don’t worry, you’ll more or less figure out what they are saying based on context and a little bit of scouting about the environment. This is normal as a lot of signs involve fine motor skills which babies needs to develop. If you stick with it, and sign back to your baby, their approximation will improve toward the final product, no different than learning to speak. [Right: Hands coming together or clapping can be a sign approximation for MORE] Most babies get body placement and movement correct, but often have problems with handshapes since it involves fine motor skills. For example, most babies get the hand placement and motion for the sign for water, but only tend to get one finger come up instead of all three into the “W” sign which the sign requires. Babies will often use two fists together for more rather than fingers together or use an index finger into a palm. These are natural movements for babies so it’s to be expected.
In general babies find extended index finger, open hand with all five fingers out, four fingers extended, and closed fist easiest and natural to do. Any other handshape which a sign requires will be approximated until your baby develops greater fine motor skills.
Often the handshape is the same for various signs, but the movement is varied. For example, your baby might use open hands in front of the torso for PLAY omitting the proper handshape, BALL might be done by bouncing the same open hands, and ALL DONE might appear with the same open hands flapping back and forth. My son approximates BIRD by grabbing at his lip repeatedly instead of turning his hand facing outward to make the beak and does the sign for DEER by putting his hands palm down onto of his head instead of making antlers. While these signs are not perfect, we enjoy them just the same! Approximations are fine and they should cause no concern at all to signing parents. What matters is not perfection, if you understand what your baby means, then the signs are close enough. Just continue to sign the proper way and let your baby learn as they go.
Above: The ASL sign for DEER is done with the thumbs of vertical hands tapped against the temples with fingers flared apart indicating the antlers of a deer.
Two opposing movements, or two movement combinations at once are also difficult for babies to do. Always expect that more complicated signs will appear more simply and with fewer movement combinations. Complex movements are often left out of signs by babies as well. Take the sign for CAT which is done by drawing out the whiskers from the cheek with the hand. Your baby might just grab her cheek instead of drawing out the whiskers. However, this then looks exactly like PEACH. It will be the context that gives the intended sign away.
It’s a big mistake to force or even expect a baby to get signing perfect and you should encourage all efforts your baby makes in early stages. There’s no reason whatsoever that you can’t fix the signs later and it is very likely that signs will get better as time passes on their own. Never focusing on perfect signing especially the first time around and expect that if you build a large vocabulary with your baby that many signs begin to appear similar at first.
Above: We start by “spinning the wheels” with MILK and WATER, oops! He gets it right in the end! While the correct sign for WATER is with the “W” handsign (index, middle and ring-finger to the lips) a sign approximation of one finger is good enough for us! With time and practice your baby’s sign clarity will improve. But for now, encourage any and all efforts.