Imagine sitting at the dinner table with your baby’s favourite food, blueberries, and they’ve suddenly run out because your baby is hungrily vacuuming them up. Your baby moves their hands together and one hand glances off the other, or the hands come together and clasp one another. Has you baby made their first sign, MORE? Who knows, and who cares! Reward this wonderful sign approximation immediately with praise and of course more BERRIES! Eventually your baby will do the sign because he actually wants MORE. Experts call this turning an “unintentional approximation gesture” into an “intentional signal.” It turns an accident into a learning experience. So whether signs happen on purpose or by accident, always reward them, especially if they are new signs.
Above: Baby Sign Language “Touch Reminder Technique” demonstration.
Rewarding accidents is a great way to surprise your baby into repeating a sign. They’ll wonder – ‘Okay what exactly did I do to make Mom and Dad so surprised! I want this to happen again because this is great fun, now let’s see, what did I do?’ The wheels will start spinning and pretty soon your baby does the sign again and you get all excited. Now you say the word, repeat the sign for them, and they’ll be all a-buzz! Many first signs will just sort of appear as your baby experiments with movement, so always be on the look-out for these occasions.
Other times, your baby will make signs that seem to be at random, meaning they are out of context. While you could ignore them completely as if your child is talking non-sense, but why not use it as a conversation starter instead. For example, your baby does the sign for BIRD, and you’re indoors. You might say “Do you hear a BIRD? Where is the BIRD?” then you could look around the room. If you don’t find a bird, no big deal, maybe your little guy was daydreaming about birds or was practicing the sign on their own. Even more striking, maybe your baby was actually recalling his experience yesterday as you learned the sign for BIRD. Maybe he was actually thinking about it! None of us will ever know for sure, but who cares. What’s the risk of rewarding his random signs with a conversation? Instead recall as much as you can about the event and talk it through with your baby. Talk about BIRD wings and how they fly. If you have a book handy with bird photos, bring it out and show your baby the photos. If nothing else, this reinforces the concept and the sign. Now he’s brought it up himself, you reinforced it, and next time he wants to see birds, he knows just what to do.
The point is that your baby has communicated a thought and you acknowledged it instead of ignoring it. If you want your baby to continue signing, what better way than to encourage all their efforts even accidents. In most cases, once a baby has learned a sign, they will start to hear and see BIRDS all over the place. A toy might make a squeak that sounds like a bird, or your baby might find a photo of a bird. Birds can pop up everywhere once your baby is attuned! Trust me on this one!