When teaching your baby to sign, or interacting with them otherwise, you should really make an effort to join your baby on their level. Take the time to crawl around with them and look at the world from their perspective. To do it you need to bring all your senses right down at the same level as your baby or young toddler. I promise it looks a whole lot different than what you are used to, and will probably a real eye opener. Getting on a baby’s level is paramount to connecting with your baby and no different than what you would expect from any other person while talking. Towering over your baby is fine if you want to power trip them, but does you no good when trying to have constructive conversations with them. Getting down on your baby’s level also ensures that they can see what your hands are doing and allows you to make strong eye contact which will be mirrored back to you when your baby addresses you and watches you closely as you make signs.
Now that you have spent some time of the floor (which has hopefully been recently cleaned!) and you’ve experimented with having a clear line of sight with your baby, you have a better understanding of what their world looks like. Hopefully you will revisit this face-to-face position regularly when you sign. If you have really old bones and would prefer an alternative, bring your baby up to your level by sitting on the couch together or sign with them when they are in their highchair. However, I submit that moving to the ground and spending some time there, either sitting, squatting or crouching is a great way to bond one on one with your baby. Do your best to strip the parent/child relationship away and remove the power that height difference commands and really connect with your baby. This will tell them that you are talking with them instead of at them.
The following are some other practical tips when signing with your baby. The first is to avoid talking to them with your back turned while doing something else such as the dishes or preparing a meal. This is just bad etiquette. Sometimes it can’t be avoided and you really need to get something done, just try not to make it a habit as signing is impossible to do when you aren’t facing a person directly. Have a specific tone which you use to speak to your baby on a regular basis. Thus, you’ll have an adult voice and a parental voice making it easy for your baby to tell who you are addressing. If you aren’t comfortable with this, make sure you pause for a moment, establish eye contact and say your baby’s name before getting into your lesson.
When possible always shrink the distance between you and your baby instead of trying to talk loudly and sign across a room. Babies really appreciate proximity and function best in a more intimate space. When reading a book, sit with them in your lap so they can see your hands from behind. This will give your baby a unique perspective on the signs. Always make sure you and your baby are looking at the same thing. For example, when talking about a cat you see walking down the road, make sure your baby isn’t actually focused on the dog barking in the neighbours window. This will only create confusion. Sometimes it helps to point to what is being spoken about to make sure the baby sees what you want them to. Pointing is also a useful nonverbal body language skill that has lifelong applications so it’s never too early to practice this signal. With practice, seeing what it is you are pointing at will become much easier. Feeding times are great to share signs with your baby, as are reading times, and play times. All times are good, but when your baby is tied down to a chair, you’ve got a committed audience!
Above: Learning to sign can be fun. Try drawing out a few of the signs you know. They can be animals, food, objects, anything! Any task that increases communication with help your baby develop their vocabulary. Courtney draws BEE, RACCOON, OWL and SQUIRREL.