Over the past two decades we have introduced hundreds of thousands of parents, teachers, and pediatricians to the advantages of the Baby Signs Program. Invariably, the response is amazement at the simplicity of what we are advocating and enthusiasm once they learn of the many benefits signing can bring to babies and their families. Even our most vocal skeptics are easily won over once they see a baby signing, purposefully communicating to her mom that she wants a cracker, needs more juice, is feeling too hot or sees a bird up in the tree. It is amazing what little hands and minds can do if given the tools (signs) they need to “tell” us what they know. But where did our own enthusiasm come from? Who convinced us that signs were indeed something special?
How the Baby Signs Program Began
It started on a summer day in 1982 when Linda and her twelve-month-old daughter, Kate, were out in the garden. Enchanted by the colorful blooms all around her, Kate pointed to a rose bush, wrinkled up her nose, and sniffed repeatedly. Life with children often slows parents down long enough to “smell the roses,” and Linda had often picked them for Kate to smell, all the while saying things like “See the flower, Kate! See the pretty flower!” Clearly, Kate remembered the connection between the sniffing action and the object, and she trusted that the adults around her would, too. For the rest of the day Kate continued wrinkling her nose and sniffing—her sign—for all kinds of flowers, in the house, on her clothes, and in pictures in her books. Kate continued to borrow or create signs for other things she wanted to talk about, like fish, elephants, monkeys, swings, slides, and balls. It wasn’t until two weeks later that we realized the significance of what Kate was doing.
Out of Our Living Room, into Our Laboratory
As child development researchers, the whole experience left us eager to see if other infants were using signs, too. To find the answer, we began systematically interviewing parents to find out if their babies spontaneously created signs, as Kate had done. Within days of starting our interviews, the answer was clear. Not only did many parents give us examples of signs their babies were using, but the babies themselves would occasionally interrupt our visit to “talk” to Mom, including a sign or two in the process.
We learned a great deal from these families, and the more we learned, the more convinced we became that, in their eagerness to communicate, babies creating signs is not an unusual occurrence in day-to-day family life. Many babies spontaneously seem to develop at least a few signs beyond the universal bye-bye, yes, and no, usually sometime between nine and twenty-four months. We also noticed that some babies take to the idea with particular enthusiasm, creating an impressive variety of signs for favorite objects and important needs. Invariably, these babies had families who shared their enthusiasm and encouraged the signing. Moreover, it tended to be the case that the more signs an infant used, the faster that child learned to talk. This was our best clue yet about the effect of the Baby Signs Program on spoken language development. Signing seemed, if anything, to speed up the process.
It was at this point that we knew we needed to figure out a way to help babies along. Thus, we began encouraging parents to purposefully teach their babies a few more signs to help them communicate their basic needs, feelings and interests—anything their babies wanted or needed to “talk” about—until they could talk well enough to communicate with words. And thus, the Baby Signs Program was born!
The Original Baby Signs Program
The Baby Signs Program began with baby-created signs—simple movements and gestures that babies themselves took from their routine experiences with the people and things around them. Drawing from songs, games or playful interactions with toys and other objects, babies were finding ways to “talk” before they could talk. For example, several babies we observed twisted their index fingertips together to label spiders—real spiders, pictures of spiders and even plastic toy spiders. What these babies had in common, we discovered, was the experience of learning the Eency Weency Spider song, along with the hand gestures that accompany key words, like “spider,” “rain” and “sun.” Other babies, we found, stuck their tongues our and “panted” to call their parents’ attention to dogs—clearly an imitation of what they saw real dogs doing. Creations such as these not only provided indisputable evidence of how smart babies are, they also showed just how strongly motivated babies are to communicate with the people around them.
In these early years, before signing with hearing babies was a well-accepted practice, some parents were reluctant to try signing because, as they told us, their babies were not Deaf. Their babies could hear just fine. At that time, prior to our efforts to get parents to use signs with their hearing babies, signing was seen only as a means of communication for the Deaf. On the other hand, parents were eager to try using signs that our research had shown came naturally for babies. So we provided parents with 50 “sign suggestions,” simple signs that we had seen babies in our research studies create. We also encouraged parents to watch for their own baby’s creations and to create signs themselves when the need arose. This first approach to helping parents get started with our Baby Signs Program became the heart of the first edition of this Baby Signs book. Published in 1996, it launched the extraordinary Baby Signs movement that has revolutionized the way today’s parents communicate with their babies before their babies can talk.
The Baby Signs Program Evolves
As signing with hearing babies became more and more popular, parents became eager to teach their babies more and more signs. As a way to expand their own signing repertoires, some parents turned to American Sign Language (ASL), the official language of the Deaf community, with its extensive vocabulary of established signs. We were thrilled to see parents so excited about enhancing their signing experiences and we continue to strongly support parents who want to teach their babies the signs of ASL.
To embrace parents’ enthusiastic response to signing, we revised the Baby Signs Program to increase the number of sign suggestions from 50 to 100—most of which (about 80%) were ASL signs, with the other 20% being either slightly modified ASL signs or alternative “baby-friendly” signs. Baby Signs, 2nd Edition, was published in 2002 to introduce this newly expanded program to parents throughout the world.
Signing with Hearing Babies—A Worldwide Movement
Little did we know in 1982, when this all began, that 25 years later the Baby Signs Program would become a worldwide movement. Baby Signs workshops, classes and trainings are now offered in over 40 countries and Baby Signs books and products have been translated into almost 20 different foreign languages. Throughout this amazing growth, our mission has always remained the same—to bring the benefits of the Baby Signs Program to as many families as possible.
To achieve our mission, we formed the Baby Signs Institute to continue our research on the ways in which the Baby Signs Program influences children’s development and to design curricula for signing workshops and classes. We now offer Baby Signs Parent Workshops to introduce parents to the benefits of signing with their babies, two 6-week sessions of Sign, Say & Play classes to give parents and babies fun and interactive ways to learn signs together, and an Early Childhood Educator Training to help child development centers incorporate the Baby Signs Program into their infant and toddler classrooms.
We also founded Baby Signs, Inc. to create developmentally appropriate books toys, music CDs, and videos for children and educational signing resources for parents and caregivers. A listing of these products, along with detailed descriptions and purchasing information is included in the back of this book.
We are especially proud of our Baby Signs DVDs. In moderate amounts and with developmentally appropriate content, videos can be a positive source of learning for young children. Our strategy in developing these videos was to keep the time short and the content high-quality and educational—including animated and real signing children from whom babies can learn to sign themselves. We have also made sure that the audio and visual elements of these DVDs are fun, engaging and, most of all, in tune with babies’ developing abilities. We have accomplished this through the use of 3-D animation, delightful puppets, happy babies, and careful attention to pacing and repetition.
The Baby Signs Program: Right for Every Family
Some families, we have found, want to teach their babies only ASL signs. Other families prefer a more flexible approach and choose to include a few modified ASL signs to make it easier for their babies’ little hands to master. And still other families really value the freedom to create signs that work best for their own babies—signs that their babies can easily do to communicate about things important in their own family’s daily interactions. Because we love helping all families find the best way for them to start signing with their babies, we must continually revise the Baby Signs Program in order to meet these families various needs.
Our major goal for this new edition is to introduce our new Baby Signs Program that now offers an all-ASL approach for the many families who want to introduce their child to this rich and vital language. At the same time, however, it also includes a set of baby-friendly alternative signs and strategies for including baby-created signs for those families who prefer a more flexible approach. In other words, the Baby Signs Program now meets the needs of all families so everyone can quickly and easily begin experiencing the joys that signing with their baby can bring.
This new edition has also provided us the opportunity to update the Baby Signs research sections, including exciting findings regarding signing and emotional development and the impact of the Baby Signs Program in child care centers and childhood enrichment programs. In fact, we have included a new appendix that describes what we know about using the Baby Signs Program in child development centers, the benefits specific to the children and teachers in child care programs and advice for helping your child’s center become a Certified Baby Signs Center.
And best of all, this new edition comes with a Free Offer for a copy of our newest Baby Signs Video Dictionary DVD, a $19.99 retail value. This instructional DVD includes demonstrations of 150 ASL signs and 35 baby-friendly signs, each easily accessible through just a touch of your remote control. Details for getting your free copy are included in the back of the book so be sure take advantage of this super teaching aid offer today.
It gives us great pleasure to bring this new edition to you, to share what we have learned through many years of study about communicating with babies, and to envision the look of sheer delight on your face when you see your baby make her first sign. Teaching your baby to sign is truly a gift—a gift from you to her that will serve her well for years to come.
Linda and Susan