When he was about eleven months old, I began to insist on using a “nurse” sign – he was grabbing at my shirt, flailing his arms, and yelling at me to indicate his desire to nurse. It took about three days of reminding him to sign “nurse” before he caught on, and started coming up and shaking his little fist in the air when he wanted to nurse.
After he started signing “nurse,” I introduced a few new signs. He started picking them up really quickly, and we started to see Eamon’s very own spin on his signs. The baby signing experts call this “approximation.” It makes sense that babies can’t perfectly imitate our motions, but sometimes seeing the attempts are hilarious. “Cracker” and “cheese” both have a sort of grinding motion. When he starting signing them, I couldn’t figure out why Eamon was flapping his elbows like a chicken - until I saw someone else sign “cheese” to him - the grinding motion makes your elbows move, and apparently that’s the part of the sign he noticed.
In the past month, (around fifteen months of age) Eamon has started to learn signs at a phenomenal rate. All the baby sign resources say that’s what happens, but it’s still shocking. He can learn a new sign in just a few days. At thirteen months old, he signed: dog, nurse, more, all done, up, ice, water, cracker/cheese (he uses one sign for both), book, sleep, toothbrush, sticker, popcorn, and bath. He is adding signs to his vocabulary so fast, I can barely keep up! When he wants to know the sign for something, he will point at it, and look at us expectantly. Right now we are working on apple, egg, and stop. He will repeat apple and egg, and responds to stop, but doesn't use the signs spontaneously yet. At fourteen months, it's impossible to list all his signs - I would guess he has thirty or so now.
Sometimes people are skeptical of baby signs. They think it will delay verbal communication. But the truth is, very few one year olds have the oral dexterity to repeat words in an understandable way. By giving Eamon a communication method he does have the dexterity to master, we have prevented countless meltdowns and miscommunications. The sign helps bridge the gap between nonverbal and verbal communication. When Eamon says, "chee..." I'm not sure what he means. But when he signs along with the spoken word, I know he is trying to say "cheese," and I can respond appropriately and help him with pronunciation. I think his use of signs makes him more in tune to us, as well. Not only does he listen to us, he watches us as well. And he delights when someone outside our family signs to him.
I can't say enough about baby signs. Even if you only use a few, they help. I've found them to be addictive. Once Eamon learned the concept, he became hungry for signs. And I've learned a lot by feeding that hunger.
Update January 2013: Once Eamon began to have very understandable speech, he stopped using signs. It's a little sad to look back at these pictures and videos and remember the time (around eighteen months) when he knew somewhere between sixty and seventy signs, but he really doesn't need them anymore. The main purpose of Baby Sign Language is to bridge the gap between a child knowing his needs and being able to verbalize those needs. As you can hear in the video below, his pronunciation could have created a lot of confusion, since many spoken words sounded the same. Once he perfected the spoken word, he abandoned the sign unless we were confused about what he was saying, and now, at two years old, he doesn't sign at all.
It's hard to tell the difference when Eamon says, "ball" versus "balloon."
But when he signs "balloon," it makes it much more obvious.