When introducing a sign, have the object present (or a representation of the object such as an image or stuffed animal, etc.), or if you are teaching a sign for food be prepared to give it to your baby to create the full association. In other words, make sure the sign is in proper context, as this will encourage your baby to learn faster. For example, while eating, you wouldn’t try to teach animal sign unless you had a picture book nearby, and while at the zoo you wouldn’t teach food sign unless you were having a picnic. Being in the right moment and having the actual things you are signing about in the immediate environment, are the keys to encouraging signing. Signing in context will give your baby everything they need to pick the signs up – and at an accelerated pace.
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.
If you want to teach the sign for APPLE, than make sure you have one nearby ready to go. You want to be able to hand an APPLE over right away as soon as your baby makes the sign. This solidifies the connection between the object and the sign and teaches your baby about the power of communication. If your baby really likes apples it also gives them a strong incentive to do the sign themselves so they can ask for it. When asking your baby if they want to PLAY, read a BOOK, go for a WALK, EAT, or having some MILK, make sure you’re ready right then and there to do or give your baby whatever it is you are signing or offering. Babies live in the here and now and have very little patience to speak of which means their thoughts fad fast. If you are going to give MILK, have it handy, if you are going to offer to go on a WALK, be sure you are set to go. WALK is a key motivating sign for my son and when he hears it, he immediately wants to go. We taught the sign to him because he had independently learned the association between getting ready to go such as putting on outdoor clothing, jackets and shoes and so forth and then actually doing it. All we did next was provide the label for the activity. To sign WALK we move each hand up and down as if they are feet moving one foot in front of the other. He picked the sign up with just a few tries and would flap his arms up and down near the baby gate whenever he wanted to go outside. Flapping his arms, his approximation, near the gate, the context, became his way to communicate his desire.
Above: In this baby sign language video we teach the sign for WALK in a few different contexts.
If you delay a reward than you will delay the association to a later time as the thought will have left your baby’s short term memory. The idea is to create the memory now which can be recalled later and have long lasting effect. To expect your baby to hold a thought which is out of context and connect it with another at a later time, is asking too much of them. Even some adults find this task difficult. I’ll also add that if your baby independently does a sign outside of meal-times or snack times for a particular food, you should strongly consider giving it to them to reinforce the sign – at least at first. You won’t spoil them if you do it to teach a sign, and you can, and should, set limits later.
Sign about any concept that is happening in your baby’s life but make sure that they are immediate. For example, teaching the sign for HURT which is a vague concept is difficult when a baby is not experiencing it. Signs for feelings are the sorts of things you want to catch while they are happening. A way to teach HURT is by using one of your baby’s favourite dolls. Simply drop the doll on the floor. Then pick the doll up and ask if the doll if it’s HURT. Then you ask “WHERE does it hurt?” to the doll and go over the doll with the HURT sign until you find the spot. Then you might say “Oh poor doll, you HURT your stomach” let’s kiss it better. You can repeat this several times and over the course of a few days. Next you want to catch when your baby has HURT themselves. Come over and consol them and when they are calm ask them if they are HURT and do the sign. Even if you’ve seen what has happened ask them “WHERE it HURTS” and go over their body just like you did with their doll. HURT is a very important sign to teach your baby so they can tell you what’s wrong with them if you aren’t around to see it happen. Teething babies will be especially thankful for being able to tell Mom and Dad where it hurts so they can give them medication or sooth them through the night.
Above: How would you know if you baby or toddler had teething pain if they couldn’t communicate? Perhaps he would cry a lot, maybe he might point to his mouth if you’re lucky. However, with baby sign, knowing the source of pain is easy. This video covers my technique for teaching toothache by first identifying teeth with “Alf” and then using the sign HURT. You’ll also want to teach your toddler where his teeth are and describe that he might (at some point) feel pain there. This will give you some lee time and prepare him for when or if it the pain will come. An advanced signer will sign HURT near the source of the pain. Thus, you can sign HURT near the ear for earache or HURT near a knee for a scrap.
Other concepts like SAD, ANGRY, COLD, or HOT also need to be taught in context and while they are happening. Having HOT food is a great way to teach this sign. You would say “Be careful, this food is HOT” then blow on the food and have your baby touch it briefly. Of course the food should only be warm in this case and not scolding hot! HOT is a very important concept to learn and will come in handy when you fire up the barbeque or use the stove. Once your baby knows the danger associated with HOT then they’re going to show more caution and think twice before running up and grabbing things. Context is also important for SAD and ANGRY. For these, you will need to catch your baby in the moment to teach the sign. As Mom or Dad leaves for work it is a good time to teach the sign for SAD. Be sure to have the proper facial expression so your baby understands exactly what you mean. ANGRY can be taught when your baby is frustrated for not getting that special treat. COLD can be taught with cold water, ice cubes, or a cold bath. Regardless of the sign, teaching it in the moment is always most effective!
Above: In this video are some techniques for teaching HOT. First, you might consider using a warm piece of food which you will let your baby touch. You can also use warm water, or a warm stove. Have baby come close enough to feel the sensation of the higher temperature (obviously without burning them). You can then transfer this across more contexts to produce the best result. Your baby will learn to sign with practice, but he also needs to use the words in more than just one situation. Once your baby understands HOT, use it to warn him about the BBQ, stove and fireplace or as the situation warrants.