Once you begin signing with your baby, there are a few phenomena to watch out for:
Expect your child to recognize a sign that you are making well before he starts using it on his own. You’ll run into this same experience before your child starts talking … saying, “Time to eat!” will elicit the same response to a toddler as signing “milk” will to a baby.
Recognizing words and signs is called having receptive language and being able to form words and signs is called expressive language. You can expect your child to go through the former before going through the latter, both in sign as well as spoken word.
Signs that have a similar handshape will often start out the same … that is, your baby may be making the same sign for several words. One that I noticed was “ball” … “more” … “hurt” … they all are two-handed signs where the hands are brought together. This can be compared to a child saying “ba” for several words, such as “ball” … “bird” … “balloon.”
This is all perfectly normal and all to be expected. Your challenge will be to figure out what your baby is trying to tell you … just use context. If you’re feeding your child, he might want more, but if he’s playing, he might want his ball.
When your child first starts signing, she may use one sign for everything. Just like children will use one word (like “mama”) for many things, so too will children use one sign for many things. This is a good thing! This means that she has realized that the gestures do indeed stand for something and they can be used to get it. Instead of becoming flustered because your baby seems to be signing meaninglessly, be happy that she’s “getting it.”
Continue showing her other signs, remain consistent, and she’ll eventually begin to use the proper sign in the proper context.
Also expect what I like to call a “signing explosion.” It seems that after mastering a few signs, most babies suddenly realize that signing will get them what they desire and their ability to soak up signs like a sponge becomes evident. My son went through this and I couldn’t supply him with signs fast enough … I recognized the look he would give to me, that questioning look as he viewed a new object or activity and wanted to know the sign – because he wanted to be able to talk about it! His signing vocabulary jumped tenfold every day and it was really amazing.
You can look forward to this as your child begins to speak – and one extra benefit of signing that I noticed … my son already knew what everything was, he just had to try out the word!