Parents sometime complain that they’ve been signing for some time and have yet to see their baby sign. This is largely due to the fact that the first sign often appears like random movements so parents often miss it. Missing your child’s first sign is easy to do if you aren’t totally alert, and can mean that a baby doesn’t get the proper reinforcement they need to repeat it. Unfortunately this makes signing less likely to reoccur. Thus, you should be ultra vigilant around the time when signing is most likely to occur. Watch for any subtle movement that looks remotely similar to the signs you’ve been teaching.
If you notice that your baby seems to make the sign, but you aren’t totally sure, reinforce it anyway! Applaud, clap, get excited and quickly give your baby exactly what they’ve ask for even if it’s not in the schedule. Don’t worry about spoiling your baby, there will be plenty of time to teach them self restraint later. If your baby opens and closes their fist making the sign for MILK, give them MILK right away! Even if it was an accident but your baby appreciate the milk you’ve given them, their sure to develop and association and want to repeat it even if they don’t fully understand what they did! Often MORE appears as a first sign around the end of dinner time, so watch for their little hands to come together. If their hands touch, say “Oh baby, you want MORE?”, “Okay, let’s get baby some MORE” then give your baby more of their favourite foods. MORE will likely appear much less like the sign you’ve been showing them though so don’t expect or wait for things to be perfect. One finger might touch the palm of the other, the hands might clap together, and so forth. Any variation should be immediate rewarded. Baby’s signs will become more refined with time so don’t worry about that right now.
Above: Baby signing MILK in different contexts.
Therefore, when you’re around your baby watch for signs to appear at any time and try to decipher them from other regular motions. You’re going to need an attentive eye for this, and if you’re wrong, reward it anyway, it’s not a big deal. You’re still “training” your baby to associate their hand movements with communication. Watch for repetitive movements that might at first seem random. If your baby opens and closes their fist several times and claps again and again, they probably want MILK/MORE. Watch for hand movements that often appear regularly when certain stimuli are present. In other words, watch for patterns emerging. Does your baby flap their arms near the end of each meal? Maybe this is their sign for ALL DONE/FINISHED? Reward it anyway! Say you are “All DONE?”, “Do you want to go PLAY?” and then quickly clean your baby up and let him go explore. Watch for signs that appear at certain regular times of the day such as waving arms when a parent is leaving for BYE or a hand patting the leg when you walk by the neighbours DOG.
Your baby might also accompany their early signs with grunting as a rudimentary form of communication. If your baby grunts while making eye contact with you or looks at the object they are signing about, then you really know they are trying to say something. When in doubt, watch for signs to appear regularly across context and situations. If it happens every time, then you can be pretty sure that your baby is signing! Next time you are in the same situation pay close attention to see if the motion is repeated the same way.
Keep in mind that sign will appear only subtly and a simple form of the real thing. Some parents miss these gestures because they can be hidden, but baby will often make this simple gesture before refining them later once they gain more coordination. Very often signs appear as some vague approximation to a sign and rarely exactly like the one you’ve been modeling for them. Most babies will bring their hands together for MORE, or will bring an index finger to a vertical open hand since the correct sign is much more difficult. ALL-DONE sometimes appears as a wave with the entire hand flapping and WATER looks like an index finger coming to the mouth since using the “W” sign – with the first three fingers extended to the mouth involves fine motor skills which a baby hasn’t yet developed. All approximations should be acknowledged, celebrated and rewarded even if these are not in fact true signs. There is no harm in rewarding signs even if they aren’t real, as it will merely encourage more signing.
Above: Courtney explains how sign approximations apply in baby sign language.