How sign language helps our baby tell us everything he needs

Communicating through sign language has given Kyle Ricketts a window into his baby boy's brain.

close up of father with little baby girl at home

Trying to figure out what your kid wants can be a headache. Literally.

They scream, grunt, cry, shout and use any number of non-verbal-yet-somehow-verbal cues to get what they want.

Even when you spend time with your baby and you get to know what these signs are, it can take some guess work. And many of the sounds kids use could sound the same but mean something different.

The whole prospect of that was daunting to me as my son’s due date got nearer.

So I voiced my concerns to my fiance. What if I don’t know what he wants? How am I going to be able to help him? How am I meant to know what ‘ger’ is?

Maintaining a sense of calm, she mentioned how some parents teach their kids sign language.

She’d been in child care for a while and had seen some kids who had learnt sign language that were able to communicate what they wanted, easily. So she threw out the idea to teach our son.

My concern was that we didn’t know any sign language ourselves.

Ever the optimist, she found an easy and simple solution to the problem. We could go and learn it ourselves.

Now I’m not going to lie here. I didn’t go to a single class. She did, and when she’d come home she’d start to teach me. (In this way it would sink in for her … it was in no way laziness on my part *cough*.)

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We had a few signs that we wanted to teach, and we used them with each other, practising, training and getting used to them. Then they big day arrived.

We launched with just one sign

Milk.

We figured you can smell nappies, and as a tiny little newborn, sleep wasn’t really a problem.

He’d settle in for a siesta just about anywhere as long as mum was holding him, so we didn’t feel the need to teach him sleep that early.

So milk it was. We would use the sign every time he clamped down on the boob, looking like a miniature Dracula.

After doing this for a month or so, he would look at us with those vacant eyes and not have a clue what we were saying to him.

But we kept at it. It was a case of repetition, repetition and repetition. And maybe a little bit of dedication.

I was worried that we’d overload his already-working-at-capacity brain as he tried to figure out how the rest of his body worked and here we were cramming more into it.

Then one day, very slyly, he signed milk.

We stopped what we were doing, not really sure if what we saw had happened.

So we asked again, “Do you want some milk?”

This sweet, tiny, intelligent, pint size human being lifted his hands and signed milk again.

I was amazed. Completely in awe of him. He’d picked this up easier than talking. Easier than crawling even.

And once it got started, there was no stopping him.

It made meeting his needs as easy as meeting my own

Soon eat was added to his inventory.

Sleep.

More. (No, not more signs, the sign for more.)

The list keeps growing.

The main benefit of teaching him sign language is being able to communicate, clearly, with him.

There is no confusion, no second guessing.

Now we only have to ask him what it is he wants and he’ll sign it. He knows that he can get across what it is he wants and, if it’s within reason, he’ll get it.

It really is amazing to see your little boy come up to you and sign eat because he’s hungry or sign dummy because he wants it.

Even more amazing is when you ask him in sign language where his dummy is and off he goes looking for it. Even more so amazing when he comes up to you and asks you where his dummy is.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still times where we don’t know what he wants because he doesn’t know the sign for it yet. It’s an easy fix problem because we just go find out what the sign is and teach him.

Or he just makes up his own sign for it in the interim and we have to figure out what it is he’s saying. Kind of like Simon says on expert level.

And for those who are worried about sign language delaying his speech, just like I was, all I can say is that we needn’t have worried.

According to the maternal health nurse, he should be saying five to six words at his age. He’s saying about 10. Curiously enough, some of them are a combination of uck words, like yuck, stuck and truck.

Yes, I am sure those are the words. Mostly.

What now?

We are going to keep using sign language with him, even when he can talk.

Our vision is that he can use sign language to talk to us when he doesn’t feel comfortable talking in front of people, and if he has any kids at school who are deaf and can only sign, that he is able to talk to them.

If we happen to give him a brother or sister (talks are still happening about this), we’ll be able to have time where we talk with our hands, mainly when the new sibling is asleep.

Plus my fiance and I use it to talk to each other all the time. It makes it so much easier to ask questions when the little hell raiser is asleep and we don’t want to wake him.

Right now our son knows 80 signs

Eighty. It blows my mind.

Anything from emotions, to colours, to objects.

If this is something you’re considering, it does take a lot of time. You’ll need to do the same signs thousands of times, but once they start they pick up the rest easier and easier.

My kid amazes me every day and I can’t wait to see what else he has in store for us.

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