Its common sense that signing in baby’s field of vision is important, but when you’re busy with a thousand different things like cooking dinner, clean up messes, and tending to other children, the last thing you’re thinking about is the world according to your baby’s perspective. It’s also hard to visualize your baby’s world from such a low angle making it easy for signs to go unseen. For example, the outer leaf of a table can create a blind spot where a nearby baby sitting on the floor won’t be able to see your hands.
Just remember that teaching your baby to sign is impossible if they can’t see what you’re signing! Not only that, but babies are often distracted by other things so a good portion of signing lessons go unnoticed. Occasionally however, you might be pleasantly surprised when a baby models a sign back to you when you thought a lesson was missed. There are times when a baby will seem utterly focused on a task but picks up signs in their periphery. Unfortunately this is the exception to the rule, so always try to capture your baby’s attention as best you can. Failing this always carry through with the lesson and sign anyway even if your baby absolutely won’t be torn from their activity. The very fact that you are signing and emphasizing the key word each time will help with the actual sign when you can regain their focus, and besides, signing all the time makes you a good role model, one that follows their own rules even when other people aren’t looking!
Above: The ALS sign for APPLE is made by closing the knuckle of the index finger and twisting it on the cheek near the edge of the mouth.
When it’s obvious that your baby isn’t watching you sign, you might consider giving up for the time being and trying later. When baby is highly focused (distracted!) on a task and doesn’t seem interested in signing, just leave them be. There are also times when baby will be hungry, particularly interested in a toy or game, or simply isn’t interested in learning from others. During these times, just let your baby be and enjoy your very brief signing holiday! There’s a big difference between teachable moments where your baby is fully concentrating on signing, and others where they’d rather be doing something else. We’ll talk more about these precious teachable moments a little later, but for now, let’s just assume your baby is “looking right through you” instead of lovingly gazing at you with undivided attention and cover some tips.
First, establish eye contact by calling your baby’s name or lightly touching them on the shoulder or hand. If you do get eye contact try to show them the object and do the sign at the same time. This works fine for signs such as APPLE which is done by twisting a closed fist near your cheek because you can hold the apple near your face and do the sign at the same time. This means your baby can watch you say the word by making eye contact, see the object and watch you do the sign all at the same time. However it’s another thing to try to do the sign for BOOK (or other two-handed sign) which requires two hands at the same time. The book or other object ends up on your lap or the floor to free your hands to do the sign. Naturally, your baby’s eyes follow, and when you do the sign, it goes unseen since baby is looking at the book on your lap instead of your hands and can’t watch your face to see you say the words! In this case, repeat the sign several times, move the book around or have your baby hold it while you do the sign. That way, they know what you’re really talking about.
Above: Books are a great way to encourage signing! In this video we sign BOOK, DEER, BUG, FROG, FLOWER, SLEEP, MOUSE, BIRD, GOOSE, GIRL, SQUIRREL, TURTLE, OWL, RACCOON and TREE.
Competing for the attention of a baby with an object is not easy, but certainly possible. If you can’t hold the object near your face and sign at the same time, then just place the object behind your back for a split second. This will get your baby’s attention back since they’ll try to entice you to make the object reappear by looking at you. Doing the sign just before it reappears is very effective. Doing it this way anchors the sign to the object so right away they know what it is you are signing about.
When you read to your baby consider reading to them from behind with the book on their lap so you can do signs from their perspective and still read the words. A pillow can help hold the book upright freeing your hands to sign. If you’d rather see your baby’s expressions and show them signs from the front, then just read the book upside down! You don’t have to read the words perfectly, they won’t notice! They’re just looking at the photos anyway and usually these are the things you will want to sign. After a while your baby will become accustomed to looking to you to see how the signs are made and will recognize the tone and patterns your voice makes when you teach a new sign.