November 28, 2012

Why Does My Baby Use the Same Sign for Everything?

Using the same sign for many things is very common and very comparable to what happens when a baby learns to verbalize (with or without signing).

When I explain this developmental process in my workshops, I start first with the verbal process, since that is more familiar to many of us.

For example, when a baby learns the word for a "ball," they might say an approximation such as, "Ba!" We are so excited that they've learned the word for this object, and we respond with positive reinforcement by cheering them on, giving them the ball, etc. In time, the baby will likely point to other favored objects (such as the kitty, or their daddy, or the dog, etc) and say with great enthusiasm "Ba!" Our very natural parenting reaction is to respond with enthusiasm, knowing they are trying to say another important word, but they haven't developed the new vocabulary yet.  

So, for example, we might say, "That is the kitty. Here kitty kitty. Nice kitty." When they see the dog and say "Ba!" we will say, "Yes, that's the dog. You like the dog don't you?" We don't correct or draw attention to the "mislabel." We use our natural interactions with baby to gently and casually give them a new label for this motivating object. Over time they begin to hear (and experiment with) these new labels.  

The same process happens with signing. If your baby's first sign is more, it is likely reinforced with your actions and enthusiasm, and saying more is therefore rewarding for your baby. In the beginning, the sign for more may be the only word in your baby's toolbox when he or she wants to say something. So...when he or she looks at the kitty, he might sign more, and when he or she looks at the dog, she might sign...more.

If you can decipher from the context what your baby is trying to communicate when he is eagerly using his "one word vocabulary," then respond to him with something like, "Yes, Evan, that is the kitty. This is how you sign for kitty" all the while showing the sign for kitty.  He may not "look" directly at you the first (or tenth!) time you do this (re: he will be looking at the kitty!) but if you keep with it, he will start to "catch" you doing the new sign...and he will start looking from you to the kitty and back again, to see what you are doing/saying with your hands--especially if you use his name
during this labeling conversation.

In addition, if you now know that he wants to have a label for kitty and doggy, etc, you can make a point to emphasize those signs during playtime and/or when you read (i.e. sing a silly song about kitties while you sign for kitty; bring out a soft kitty toy as a prop and pet the kitty, then sign for kitty; point to pictures of cats in books and show the sign for get the idea).

Over time your baby will learn that there is a unique and distinct label for all of the wonderful things around him...then your challenge will be keeping up with him as he points at something and looks at you expectantly for a new sign!

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