Teach Your Baby Sign Language: The First Three Signs
After learning how to teach your baby to sign (see our Quick Guide Teach Your Baby Sign Language in Two Weeks), the first signs you’ll teach are MORE, EAT, and MILK. These are important concepts to your little one—in fact, in the earliest stages, they’re pretty much all that he cares about. They also work well is that none of them look alike. They won’t confuse your baby—or you.
Important Note: If you’re taking the traditional route, introduce MORE and stick with it until you see signs of progress. Then gradually introduce EAT and MILK when it makes sense to do so. Again, there are no rules. Some parents introduce all three signs at once. That’s fine, too, but it may take a little longer. It’s totally your call.
Even though it’s an abstract concept, MORE is a sign that babies learn very quickly. Oftentimes it’s their very first spoken word. It’s also a good starter sign because there are many different opportunities to teach it throughout the day. In other words, you won’t get bored.
Your baby can use this sign to ask for more food, more juice, or more pages of the book that you’re reading to him. All he has to do is put the tips of his fingers together and “ask.”
Put the tips of your fingers together a few times.
- When you’re feeding your baby, give him a few teaspoons from that jar of green beans or whatever the “daily special” might be. Then stop cold. Before he can get upset, make the sign for MORE and ask, “MORE? Do you want MORE?” Continue this throughout the meal, making sure there are enough “feeding stoppages” so the idea begins to register. Repeat this pattern frequently throughout every meal, stressing the word MORE while you sign. Use an expressive and upbeat tone of voice. Smile and make a game of it. Eventually your baby will make the association if you keep repeating the routine. Like learning anything new, repetition is essential.
- Grab a handful of Cheerios. While your baby’s in his high chair, put one on his tray. When he picks it up and pops it in his mouth, ask/sign, “MORE?” Then quickly place another one in front of him. As soon as he eats it, be ready to have another one magically appear, remembering to reinforce the idea by signing and speaking every time.
- Read a book to your baby. (Babies love to hear your voice and look at the pictures, no matter how young they are.) Stop at certain intervals, look at your baby, and ask/sign if he wants MORE. Repeat this several times throughout the reading session, always asking, “MORE? Do you want me to read MORE?”
- Play Peek-a-Boo. It’s always a baby-pleaser. Stop every so often and ask/sign MORE. Then resume playing the game. Then do it again and again. And again.
- Play Baby Toss-Up. All babies love it. Pick him up and toss him gently in the air and wait for the belly laughs to begin. Then stop and ask if he wants MORE. Repeat the activity.
- Put a rubber ducky in his bathtub and sink it. Then have it pop up. If he thinks it’s funny, ask if he would like MORE.
- Gather around the kitchen table with your baby watching from his high chair or from someone’s lap. Ask family members if they would like MORE of something. Exaggerate the effort. Have them respond (and sign) that they would. Then place MORE on their plates.
One idea that may help your baby make the connection is to recruit a favorite teddy or doll with moveable hands. Give Teddy a cracker, for example, pretend that he ate it, and then ask if he would like MORE. Then bring Teddy’s hands together, making the sign. Make sure your baby is watching the action, of course.
Our next sign is a simple one. It’s the sign for EAT. To learn it, your baby will have to make another association. But because the sign for EAT pantomimes someone actually eating something (iconic), it’s one that is easy to teach and easy for everyone to remember.
Move your hand back and forth to your mouth as though you are eating.
- It’s suppertime and your baby is in his high chair watching you prepare his food. You can tell by his behavior that he’s excited about the prospect of eating. Sit down in front of him with a bowl of his favorite strained vegetables, and before you begin to feed him, ask/sign, “EAT? Would you like to EAT?” Again, your voice is upbeat and you are smiling. This has to be fun! By the way, did you notice the difference between EAT and MORE? With EAT you make the sign several times before feeding your baby. Why is that? It’s common sense, really. If you stop and start throughout the meal to teach the sign, your baby will get EAT and MORE confused.
- You don’t have to wait until your baby is in the high chair to help him make the association. When you get him out of his crib and dressed before breakfast, make the sign for EAT before you leave the room, asking him if he is hungry and ready to EAT his cereal. Then make sure you take him directly to the high chair so he makes the connection. On your way there, ask/sign that same question a few more times. Remember to speak when you sign. No exceptions.
- Surprise your baby at other times of the day by asking him if he would like something to EAT. Repeat the question a few times, and then produce a cracker so the meaning is reinforced.
- Use whatever props you can think of to reinforce the sign and its association. For example, feed the dog or a family member, or offer a pretend-snack to a stuffed bear.
When you introduce the sign for MILK, you have a different kind of association to make. MILK is something your baby can see and touch (a bottle or a breast).
Your hand opens and closes as if you were milking a cow.
- Before you give your baby his bottle or your breast, you will ask/sign, “MILK? Would you like some MILK?” Follow the same method as with the previous sign, repeating the question a few times. Then give him the bottle or breast.
- Now you have another opportunity to help your baby make the association. During his feeding, while his attention is focused on you, reinforce the sign by asking/signing, “MILK? Do you like MILK?” While it may be difficult to feed your baby and sign at the same time, ask your spouse or other family member to sign and say MILK while your baby is feeding, making sure the sign is made within your baby’s sightline.
Remember, it’s important to make sure to enlist the help of anyone else who comes in contact with your baby—the more immersion with the sign language, the better! Be sure to also check out our Quick Guide Teach Your Baby Sign Language: Hurt/Pan, Help, Diaper Change. Happy signing!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Baby Sign Language, Second Edition, by Diane Ryan