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Sign language for babies and toddlers

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Baby sign language is a way to communicate with infants before they can express their needs verbally. In fact, it has long been observed that children can be taught to use their hands to talk long before they are able to speak, such as when they wave bye-bye. Baby sign language also offers a great opportunity for plenty of positive interactions between parents and babies. So let me share some pointers from the American Academy of Pediatrics about how to get started.

Be patient. You can think about starting at 6 or 7 months, but do not expect signs to be used by a child until about 8 or 9 months (which is when many families start) and more likely 10 to 14 months. It takes time for infants to associate a sign with an action and is not instantaneous.

Continue talking with your baby. Signing is not a replacement for speaking and will not interfere with their ability to speak with words as well as with hands.

Repetition is key. So make signing a daily habit and not a one-time lesson each day.

Make the signs close to your face. That will get your baby to notice them since they love to look at faces and our eyes.

Remember, this is fun, not work. There are classes you can take to learn baby sign language, as well as books and apps you can use — and you can even teach formal American Sign Language. But the first goal is for you and your baby to enjoy this method of communication. You can even make up your own signs to describe routine activities and objects in your baby’s world.

Don’t be frustrated. It may take weeks for your little one to pick up the signs.

If, however, you suspect your child isn’t verbalizing as well as you might like, talk to your child’s health care professional to make sure there is not a speech or hearing problem that can be making verbal speech more difficult to learn.

Hopefully tips like these will help you design some signs you can use for your infant and toddler to communicate before they begin to use their words in the months ahead.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and NBC5.

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