Starting with Signing: Young Toddler Edition

When our precious first daughter was born in the summer of 2008, we had never heard of baby signing. Addie was born (unexpectedly) at 26 weeks, and I often joke that I never got past that week’s chapter in the “What to Expect…” books.

Our first months were occupied by our time in the NICU (health issues, surgeries, and eating struggles), immediately followed by five months of home quarantine to avoid germs and the very-scary threat of RSV, and topped off with a hasty move when we realized our apartment had mold growing in the walls. You might say that first year was overwhelming. You might say that we were focused on surviving, not thriving…

Enter our amazing speech therapist:
“How does Adeline express her wants and needs to you?”

“Um…well…we sort of anticipate what she wants before she tells us,” was the best that I could do. (I didn’t know any better.) We didn’t know if she didn’t know how to talk or if there was just no need. Her receptive speech (what she understood us saying to her) tested above average, so we began to work on expressive speech with a side of sign language.

Here is how we started signing with our young toddler:

  • We picked a handful of words we wanted Addie to be able to express to us first. 
  • We found a million different ways to work those words into our daily routines. Let’s say that “bath” was one of our key words; we would talk about taking a bath whenever we were in the restroom together, pretend to give her toys a bath, and check out books from the library featuring baths. We would say the word, show the sign, and then say the word while signing. 
  • As soon as she would conquer one word, we would add it to our picture card pile. I printed off pictures from the Internet and pasted them to index cards to practice at the store, at church, while we were waiting in line for anything. (Addie LOVED flash cards; every child is different, though!)
  • We taught signs with positive reinforcements first. BUBBLES, COOKIE, and SHOES were all things she loved and wanted to have. We empowered her to tell us what she wanted and when.
  • We kept a journal, adding in her new words and signs weekly. We also wrote down our goal words to keep us on track. This communication was vital for parents, grandparents, and therapists! It’s a wonderful keepsake now.
Our SLP is also the one who first recommended Signing Time to us and we checked them out from our library each visit. For both our girls, who waited until after 18 months to start signing or speaking regularly, signing was the bridge that they needed to speech. Their first signs became their first words, when they were ready!
With Addie, I am so, so, so thankful that we had her in Early Childhood Intervention services (speech, physical therapy, and occupational therapy) from a young age. By the time our second baby came along, I was a little more relaxed and a lot more informed about the range of “normal” in children…Kate is still a little below the curve when it comes to speech as an almost-two-year-old, but her signing vocabulary more than makes up for it.

Here’s a brief video of Kate signing at 14 months. My notes say, “If you have a toddler that shows no interest in signing, don’t give up! We’ve been signing to Kate (now 14 months old) since birth and she signs MORE and MILK sporadically. Today, I asked her to say/sign PLEASE and she did, which totally shocked me. Here’s a video of the cutie reenacting for a cookie. (Hee, hee…I bet COOKIE will be her fourth sign.)

For those of you who started signing after the baby stage with your little ones, what brought you to that decision? What tips do you have to share with parents who may be new to ASL?
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