The best way to start signing with your baby is to choose only 5 signs and do these over and over again until your baby signs back at least one before adding new ones. [Right: Toddler version of the sign FLOWER] Older signers (at least 8-10 months) will benefit by start with 10 signs, 5 of which will be “routine based signs” and 5 will be “motivating signs.” Routine signs are signs that cover things that happen all the time like EAT, MILK, DIAPER, SLEEP, etc. whereas motivating signs are those signs that your baby finds particularly interesting like TRUCKS, TRAINS, AIRPLAINES, FLOWERS, etc. Not all parents will find just 10 signs to be sufficient, however, this is generally agreed to be the least confusing way for a baby to pick signs up. Now you wouldn’t reduce the words you use verbally so that it doesn’t confuse a baby, but sign language is a little bit different in this respect, and limiting the number of signs you introduce at any given time, places more focus on the signs you do use. Not only this, but since you need to sign so many times throughout the day for signing to be picked up by your baby, it’s just that much easier to do it with just 5-10 signs.
Above: The hand is held to one side of the nose as if pinching a flower by the stem in the ASL sign for FLOWER. It is them moved from one side to the other as if smelling it.
You’re going to want to choose signs that are a big part of your baby’s life and things they are exposed to throughout the day, and in many different context. For example, MILK is a favourite because it’s their first food and simple enough for a baby to do. MORE is also a good sign to teach and one that is usually signed back first because it can be quickly and easily reinforced especially with delicious food like CRACKERS or CEREAL. MORE is a sign that tends to become a universal sign as it can replace other signs for specific things a baby might want. For example, a baby might sign MILK when it runs out, or they might simply sign MORE – MORE is used to replace MILK. This is why the MORE sign is a great sign to start with. You should also start with easy signs that have meaning to you and your baby. For example, an 8 month old is unlikely to find things like AIRPLAINES or CROCODILES very amusing, so we should reserve these things for older babies. We’ll cover more on which signs are good, and which are bad as far as first signs go, a little later in this guide.
Above: Baby and Dad playing around with ASL TELEPHONE. This can be a great early sign to teach because it’s a “natural sign.” A play telephone that makes a ringing sound can be a tactile prop (and corn too – although messy)! To teach the sign, just repeat, repeat, repeat as I have done in different contexts! The more you do it, the better the association. Next watch for his independent thought about the telephone i.e. in the car ride!
Once your baby has signed back 1 of the 5-10 signs, you will simple add a new sign. That means you will have about 5-10 signs on the go, which your baby hasn’t yet signed back, and continue with the existing signs your baby already knows. If you don’t continue to sign the existing words, your baby will forget, and their vocabulary won’t grow. For the record, a “new sign” is any sign which your baby has not yet signed back to you. Once they have started to use it, it’s a sign that they know, and under most circumstances, will continue to use it. More on what happens if your baby suddenly stops using a sign is found in the troubleshooting section. Just remember that it will take some threshold before baby is ready to sign, so doing too many signs inconsistently will lead to confusion for your baby and for Mom and Dad.
The key to signing is consistency. If you want to blow the top off of signing and want to start with 50 signs, go for it, so long as you can keep up with the program. Any signs added need to be signed from 20-30 times throughout the day so be careful how many signs you choose! Whatever number of signs you do choose though, be it 3 or 4, or over 50, just be consistent and continue to use them. If you do the signs each time you say the word, and remain committed, you won’t confuse your baby. If you do start with a lot of signs all at once, you might seem like you are overwhelming your baby. This is only partially true. Keep in mind that babies will still learn to speak even though they hear many hundreds of words each day. Babies, like all people, have a knack for deciphering patterns in their environment. However, this must be repeated because it’s important. If you really want your baby to start signing back quickly, then limit the number of signs you start with to just 5-10. Ten is probably the best overall number to start with because you are likely to have chosen at least one sign that is pertinent to your baby and his interests. Chances are good that he’ll sign the word he’s most interested in more quickly than any of the others. If you want to use a faster version to signing with more immediate results in mind, then consult the Fast Track to Signing Program which recommends you start with 1-3 signs in the first few weeks. This program is tailor made to produce quick results.
Baby needs to understand that signing is part of communication and every time (or nearly every time) a word is said, the sign must accompany it. This encourages baby to follow your modeling and use the sign when they communicate, just as you do. Most adults get overwhelmed with the prospect of learning dozens of signs, but the reality is that you will be learning them over the course of months and only adding new ones as your child adopts them.