This is one of the most beautiful things about signing babies. You can confirm their compliance on just about anything. One day, we were late for a nap by over an hour. My son usually slept at the same time each day, give or take 30 minutes or so. However this time we had made a trip out of town and were late coming back. We kept him from sleeping in the car since we were just 20 minutes or so from home. After eating lunch and getting ready, it had been over 2 hours from his usual time.
It was our habit to do the sign for SLEEP and say “night-night” just before naps and bedtime so he knew what followed. Usually he would sign back or say “night-night” to us – but this time he didn’t. After this experience we found that this was a great way to test his compliance on an issue. So on this occasion, we put him in bed, but he never did the sign or indicated being tired despite nearly falling asleep several times during the car ride. We’d find out later that we clear missed his tired period because he never did nap that day and was up straight through until his bedtime. By asking him to sign sleep back and not doing so, we understood that his intentions mirrored his desire to repeat a sign back. If he didn’t sign something, he probably wouldn’t do it. Holden didn’t sign SLEEP that day, nor did he ‘blow us kisses’ from his crib. He was clearly not interested in complying with sleep because he was simply not tired anymore. Signs therefore are a great way to test understanding. If a baby will not mirror a sign back when they know a sign well, then it usually indicates that they aren’t enthusiastic enough to comply with your request.
You can test compliance and understanding this way with anything. For example, I wanted to teach my son to WAIT early on while I got the stroller out so I didn’t have to fear for him running away. I would leave him near the front stoop, do the sign for WAIT and tell him verbally to wait while watching him carefully. I would grab the stroller from just inside the door. If he made steps away from the house, I would turn back and grab his arm, bring him back and do the sign again. Once I knew he understood the sign, I would simply ask him to WAIT then have him repeat the sign back. Young babies aren’t terribly good at lying so when babies repeat a sign back, they are showing that they understand what’s being said, and their general desire to do it too. I will warn that there are plenty of distractions that will cause a baby to renege on any task, so just because they’ve agreed to something in one moment, doesn’t mean they’ll stick with it in the next moment.
Having your baby commit to the sign by doing it, says that they have clearly understood the word and (more or less) intend to abide by it. This is not absolute of course, it just means that a baby is more likely to listen if they have signed back, than one that hasn’t. Keep in mind that things change all the time for your baby, so if they see a cat, dog, or are distracted by anything else, all bets are off, and what they have signed seconds ago can become meaningless. The key concept here is that when a baby signs something back, it represents their current intention rather than some sort of guarantee. That being said, getting in the habit of having your baby mirror signs back is a great way to read their understanding and enthusiasm to commit especially on important matters.
Above: This is just us playing around with counting and not really taking it too seriously.