Babies usually begin saying their first words between the ages of one and two, but they can start communicating even earlier if they learn sign language, says Laura Berg, founder of My Smart Hands Inc., a company that teaches parents how to sign with their babies.
After graduating from U of G with a sociology degree in 1999, Berg went to teacher’s college where she learned sign language. “I fell in love with it,” she says. “We did a literacy program at our school, and when I was researching different techniques to use in literacy programs, I kept coming across the idea of signing with babies, which made total sense.”
Babies develop gross motor skills earlier than fine motor skills, allowing them to make hand gestures before they can speak, she explains.
When her daughter, Fireese, was born, Berg decided to stay home with her but wanted to continue earning an income. Combining her teaching and sign language background, she began offering baby sign language lessons in her living room.
To help promote her business, she made a YouTube video showing her signing with her then one-year-old daughter. Viewers often asked Berg if they could take lessons with her or become an instructor, so she developed a curriculum for her program. She now has more than 200 instructors across North America, some of whom are also stay-at-home moms, and her YouTube channel has more than 30 million views.
Sign language takes the guesswork out of trying to figure out what your baby wants. “The number one benefit is that it really helps to reduce frustration for both the baby and the parent,” says Berg. “With them being able to tell you what they want, it makes your life a lot easier.” She says babies who know how to sign have fewer temper tantrums because they can express themselves in a way their parents can understand.
As an example, Berg tells the story of her daughter, who was already signing at 10 months. When Berg gave her some Cheerios to eat, her daughter threw them on the floor and signed “more.” Puzzled, Berg asked her what else she wanted, and her daughter replied “more cheese” in sign language. “At 10 months, she put together a two-word sentence, which I never would have imagined a 10-month-old baby could do.”
Berg says that some parents are concerned that teaching their baby to sign will delay their son or daughter’s spoken language skills. “Language and speech are not the same thing,” she says. “Babies will talk when they’re ready to talk, but it gives them a useful language to use until they develop the ability to talk.”
Laura Berg shares her top three tips for teaching your baby how to sign:
Be consistent. Start with a simple, commonly used word such as “milk.” Sign the word every time you say it, much like you would teach your baby how to say and wave “bye-bye.
Begin with a few words, then add new ones as your baby learns them.
Don’t get discouraged or compare your baby’s progress with others. You and your baby are learning a new language, so make it fun!