Babies aren’t nearly as focused as adults, nor do they have long attention spans. However, they make up for this with their boundless energy and enthusiasm for whatever tickles them at the time. This means that with a little bit of effort, you can capture them, however brief that might be. There are times too when your baby will seem utterly focused on something else, only to pick up signs in their periphery. Then at some other time, will surprise you with the sign. You think it has gone past them only to find out they were so intent on the object that they passively picked up the label for it. This is why parents should always do the signs no matter what. If you hold back and wait to gain your baby’s full attention, you might never get a sign in edge-wise!
To establish attention, you should always begin any interaction by calling out your baby’s name. Talking to your baby is no different than talking with anyone else, it’s just proper to address a person formally by calling out their name first before you start to speak to them. When your baby comes of age, they will likely start to whine in favour of proper address. This is when calling out your baby’s name before speaking with them, will help you correct their bad habit since you’ll have lead by example. You’ll then require them to address you first by saying MOM, or DAD first, then adding the rest of the request.
Above: The thumb of the vertical hand fingers outstretched is tapped against the forehead several times to make the ASL sign for DADDY.
Saying your baby’s name gives him a fair chance to shift his focus. Next try using touch to bring his focus onto you by lightly touching his hand or shoulder. When calling out a name fails, often a light touch will bring a baby to focus since it involves a second sense. Of course, this doesn’t always work so there will be times when you need to change tactics a little.
When your baby has tuned out the sound of your voice as well as your touch, you can then incorporate movement. Anything that produces movement is a big motivator for children especially movement that is out of the ordinary. When you teach try to involve as many senses as possible. Two senses are harder to ignore while three is probably impossible!
When you teach the sign for FAN, have one nearby that can be turned on and off with a dial. Even if it’s a ceiling fan, you can get up on a chair and turn the blades or turn the switch off and on to show your baby how it spins. When teaching the signs for food have them ready for your baby to sample. This engages your baby even more and makes it hard for your baby to ignore the lessons. Smelling a FLOWER and seeing the colours close up, as well as touching the petals, will make the experience much more memorable than just seeing them in two dimensions in a picture book. The more senses you can stimulate the better. [Left: An early attempt at the FLOWER sign. This toddler sniffs as if sniffing a flower]
When doing the signs and baby is focused past you to the object you are signing, just move your hands so they are in between the object and your baby. This forces your baby to see the sign. To teach the sign for BALL, you might bounce it up and down a few times to gain their attention. This uses movement and sound to engage them. Then you could pass it to them so they can touch it, thereby involving a third sense. Smelling and tasting a ball is impractical and unsanitary so skip these for this sign! Next, put the ball on your lap and do the sign for BALL right there in front of it. Next you can hide the ball behind your back and do the sign again. Passing a TOY back and forth such as a TRUCK or playing with a DOLL are other ways to engage and teach at the same time.
There will be some moments where things just click and your baby is actually interested in learning. Seize these moments. You can identify highly receptive times with what is called “mutual gaze.” This is when you and your baby make eye contact and baby seems wanting of conversation. Your baby will usually look at an object, then at you and then back to the object. This is your baby’s way of telling you that they want to know more about what it is they are seeing.
Smart parents will be patient and wait for their baby to come around on their own. Call this “lying in wait.” This means that you pounce just as soon as baby is ready to learn. Sneaky parents on the other hand, will set up signing lessons for them by purposely bringing in PETS like CATS and DOGS, or introduce new fruits as special treats. You can also plan trips to the pet store, the zoo, or the small planes airport if you have one locally. TRUCKS can be taught anytime, but if there’s construction going on down the street, why not take a walk over and look at the dump TRUCK.
There are times when baby likes to play by themselves or seems to “zone out” as if in space. This is a baby’s way of recovering from all the stimulation they have experience and is called “downtime.” All people need downtime, so best to just leave them be. Pretty soon they’ll come around and want to interact again. Listen to what your baby wants and seize the opportunities they give you! Never try to force signs onto your baby or push them too much. If you do, you might turn them off signing altogether.