Why would parents want to take a class in baby sign with their newborn – or even when they are still pregnant? Babies that young can’t respond to your signs, can they? They certainly aren’t going to be doing the signs themselves, right? So why bother?
American Sign Language is its own language, complete with a grammar and culture of its own. Children raised in a family with a deaf parent or parents, where ASL is a native language, have been known to sign back to their parents as early as 5 months old. Even if you are not fluent in ASL or don’t have the knowledge to use it in as many circumstances or with as much consistency as a native signer, your baby will recognize and react to signs within this window of development. The more you know, the more your baby’s environment will be rich with language for them to help process their world.
You don’t wait until your children are capable of speech to speak to them – (by then they’d be way behind in their abilities!), and you don’t need to wait until your children are physically capable of forming signs to sign to them. Signing, using our body in communication, is a natural thing and comes much earlier than speech. Think about pointing or waving bye-bye. Why not capitalize on that innate force? Most importantly, cognition is way ahead of speech or of sign. Your child is a being full of experiences of the world, the expression of which will simply be trapped inside them if they are not afforded an outlet.
Some people may feel reluctant to take a child this young to a class in baby sign; they can’t participate or interact in the same way as older ones. However, the fact is that baby sign instructors are ultimately teaching the parents. It will be you, the parent, who is at home with them reading their favorite book, and you, their caretaker, who will be the one offering milk repeatedly throughout the day. You will know which signs to reinforce that make sense in your home life. Even for older children, the parents are the ones who must model the correct versions of signs for their little ones. So why not take the reigns now and get a jump start? You can benefit by being there and seeing children in other stages of development with sign as well.
And finally, from a practical stand point, you have an infant that will, most likely, not be on a strict sleep schedule yet and will generally be able to fall asleep and stay asleep in most settings – the perfect time to come gear up for signing with your child! Older babies and toddlers naps might conflict with class times; or classes can create other challenges you can’t foresee. Naturally, I hope you will want to be there later, too, and that you will have the opportunity to be, but having kids is all about maximizing the time you have and making choices with the small bit of control they allow us;-). Here is a chance to build your vocabulary in ASL before you have to spend classes trying to beat your new walker to the trashcan.
I will leave you with this one more point about why to build your vocabulary ahead of baby’s skills: Milk, eat, and more are touted as the building blocks of baby sign. Sure. Yes. Basic needs come first and those words would seem to relate some pretty core bits of a baby’s world. But what if you offered more signs? Different signs? If you knew enough to broaden the examples to repeat to Baby, so that when s/he was ready to return a sign, they had more choices? Two of my second son’s very first signs were cheese and tree, two things he loves, two things he “talked about” incessantly for a long time. Cheese. Useful. Trees. Beautiful. It was what was on his mind. And I’m so glad he could tell me.