Teaching My Babies Sign Language Was A Bad Idea

baby signI thought teaching my babies sign language would make it easier for them to communicate with me. If anything, it’s made communication harder. They learned exactly one sign, which they use for everything, meaning I still have no idea what they want from me.

When my twins were immobile lumps who stared at me all day like cuter versions of Jabba the Hutt, I looked for activities that were educational to pass the long hours between naps. I found some websites on baby sign language and the pictures of adorable babies “talking” to their parents had me convinced this was a great way for my children to communicate faster and more easily. I signed words like “cat”, “food”, “bottle”, “more”, “mommy” and “daddy” at them but not only did they never sign back at me, they barely seemed interested in what I was doing. After a few months with no results I gave up. By then they had learned to crawl and I was too busy preventing them from accidentally killing themselves to keep up with the signing.

Fast forward ten months later. The boys are now nineteen-months-old and although our pediatrician says it’s nothing to be concerned about, I’m a little bummed that they still aren’t talking very much. So obviously, I was beyond thrilled last week when they signed the word “more” out of the blue at lunch one day.

I pushed away the feelings of guilt about all those times I swore in front of them believing they were too young to know what I was saying. Instead I focused on the fact that my babies were clearly geniuses. For two glorious days I showed my kids off like one does a prized pig at the county fair. I bragged at play dates, drove them over an hour to show the grandparents and posted videos to Facebook. I was just about to order one of those baby reading kits and contact TLC about getting our own show when it all blew up in my face.

I would present them with a snack and without taking a single bite they signed “more” and cried. At first I thought the yelling was because they didn’t like the type of snack being offered, so I tried one snack option after another in an effort to give them what they wanted. Still they signed at me, “More, more, MOAR!” When it got to the point that I was making it rain Chips Ahoy and they were still signing “more” while screaming in my face, I realized I had a problem on my hand much worse than my carpet full of crumbs.

I made PB&J, they wanted grilled cheese.

Now my boys think signing “more” is what they should do when they want something. Anything. And most of the time I have no idea what that thing is. Now I spend most of my day feeling like an abused chamber maid. I offer up toys the way one offers a potential outfit to Mariah Carey- with a lavish description of how amazing it is, while simultaneously backing away slowly and holding my breathe.

In addition to having two screaming toddlers, a crunchy carpet and a toy box that has been completely emptied onto the floor in a failed attempt to please the tyrants, there is the issue of the books. The boys love to be read to. They used to be satisfied with hearing any story I grabbed, but not anymore. Sometimes I barely get past the title page before they starting squawking and signing “more” at me. My son Lolo will even go so far as to chuck a book at my head if he finds the selection particularly offensive, as was the case this morning.

After twenty minutes and three paper cuts to the face, I presented them with Corduroy and was finally rewarded with smiles. They climbed into my lap and I enjoyed five minutes of relative peace while I read. The story ended. They turned to me, and a single tear slid down my cheek as they signed “more.” So much for baby geniuses.

(Image: Bibiz1/Shutterstock)

You can reach this post's author, Megan Zander, on twitter.
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    • rockmonster

      If this is a joke post, brava for the funny.

      If it isn’t, I am organizing a prayer/booze donation circle for you.

    • Rachel Sea

      It seems to me like you just need to teach them more baby sign so they don’t just have one word.

    • Allthingsblue

      My kids have all used catch-all words at some point or another. My son’s was ‘die.’ All day long Die! Die! Die! It was great.

      • AE Vorro

        Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.

    • KL Walpole

      Using one sign for everything in the world is actually a stage in babies learning to sign. (I am a sign language interpreter and teacher of the deaf.) it’s a frustrating stage, to be sure!

      • OptimusPrime*

        Comparable to non-signing babies who call everyone “mamma” or say “no!” to everything.

      • Jen TheTit Whipper

        I’m actually trying to learn ASL for my practice (counseling). Any suggestions on where to start (that doesn’t involve more college?)

      • KL Walpole

        Are you looking to have Deaf clients, in a private practice setting? If so, ASL courses are the way to go; most community/county colleges in my state offer at least ASL I and II. otherwise, look at your local adult school. Many of them offer sign language classes. You can also look for Deaf clubs in your area and go socialize with Deaf adults, once you have some classes under your belt; most Deaf adults I’ve met are happy to help hearing people learn to sign!

      • KL Walpole

        I need to add, too, that, like any other language, it takes time, effort, and lots of practice to develop any degree of fluency. You will not be able to take one semester of ASL and then be able to counsel clients.

      • Jen TheTit Whipper

        Eventually private practice, right now I just want to help a couple clients, they are hearing impaired but signing would help tremendously and there is a huge need in our area.

      • A.K. Smith

        First, you should learn not to refer to your Deaf clients as “hearing impaired.” Second, you should find the nearest professional specializing in the clinical needs of members of the Deaf community and you should refer any patients you encounter to them.

        Seriously. I know this sounds snarky, but there is entirely too much damage done to the Deaf community by well meaning hearing people who don’t bother to obtain cultural competencies before trying to force Deaf people to conform to audist notions of existence.

      • Jen TheTit Whipper

        I absolutely referred all my clients. I’m not working now. But I would never attempt to work with a client I wasn’t competent to treat. However, the list of those who can work with the deaf is very short and the waiting list is long.

    • LadyClodia the Modest Rat

      This is what it was like with my older son. His sign was “all done.” Our lives consisted of grunting and screaming a lot (him, not me…well, maybe a little bit me.) He didn’t talk much until he was almost 2 1/2, and it was so frustrating.

    • aCongaLine

      The one-sign thing is hard, lol.

      Mine learned the sign for “chewing,” because she’d never actually chew her food… and would choke. “Show Mama you’re chewing!” is what I’ve said roughly 467 times a day for the last since-she-started-eating-solid-food. So, not as many choking incidents, because chewing sign. Not sure it’s the real sign, or something we made up, but it works.

    • 0katykate0

      When I was a daycare provider I had to teach 15-24 month olds to sign. Within a year most of them had a few signs down, but some kids only relyed on the sign, and didnt actually speak. Which was a problem.. So in some ways I thing baby signing can be a hindrance… It’s not for all babies.

      • Larkin

        This happened with my cousin when he was little. He didn’t talk until much later than expected, and we think it’s because he knew how to sign so there was no reason to learn how to talk.

    • wispy

      My 20 month old has like two words now, and she cannot say them just once. It’s “mama-dada-mama-dada-MAMA-DADAAAA” for EVERYTHING. Like what child, what is it?? Last week she started with “no” and screams it incessantly. It’s like everything — do you want a snack? do you want to play blocks? do you want to pick up sissy from school? — is a 300 foot long snake slithering up to her as she backs away half screaming half crying “no… NO… NOO…NOOOOO!!!!!!!!” The world is just terrible for a 1 year old!!

      • Véronique the Attachment Shark

        If it’s any consolation my daughter is now 22 months old and knows quite a few words… except when she’s upset. Then, she freezes up, gets frustrated, kicks, but doesn’t tell us the problem. Guessing came 101!!! Are you hungry??? Are you thirsty??? Do you have a booboo?? What’s wrong???

    • Valerie

      Meg this is so great. Way too funny. My precious tyrants!

    • SunnyD847

      We had these “Signing Time” videos that were pretty good. The woman in them can actually sing and the songs are catchy. My girls really only learned a few signs (more, play, eat, milk are the ones I recall) but I thought it did help when they couldn’t vocalize what they wanted.

      • dzymzlzy

        They are absolutely awesome. We started with Baby Signing Time and moved onto a Signing Time. My daughter learned many, many signs and now at 25 months still throws in a sign with her verbal language every now and then. I credit those videos with how incredibly verbal she is now.

    • http://overthecuckoonest.blogspot.com/ Wicked Prophet Kay Sue

      My kid did this too, and we were learning to sign with a speech therapist and early interventionist, so please, don’t feel bad! It takes time, but they do pick up more of them, especially if you are signing the options you are giving, and reinforcing it once you get the right one.

      We were using signing to help my kid–whose receptive language had outpaced his expressive language by leagues–communicate without getting frustrated while his expressive caught up. I swear, it really does work out in the end. He still signs (along with verbalizing) now from time to time, especially when he is cranky or frustrated. We only did a few basic ones–cup, more, please, thank you (we’re sticklers for southern manner ’round here), all done, open, and help, if I recall them all.

    • Melissa Lepley

      Mine is quite the glutton, so the only sign he needed initially was “milk”. He’d wake me up screaming in the night and start signing “milk milk milk” while saying “yeah? Yeah? Yeah?” It made weaning when I got pregnant especially pathetic.

      Now he’s 17 months and can sign “more, please, thank you, all done” and still occasionally “milk.”

      He also has a passion for sounds. Woo woo (dog), baioo (cat), ack ack (duck), hoo hoo (owl) and choo chooo (train).

      Real actual words besides “NO!”? Not so much.

    • jsterling93

      More and All Done are the only 2 signs my 16 month old knows. He typically uses them correctly even though I think he believes more means hungry. But I feel you on the book think. These days I’m terrified of story time. My son gets very angry if I don’t read the right story.

      • Véronique the Attachment Shark

        what if you leave a pile of books out and ask him to choose one? What happens then? Does he throw them all over the place or rip them apart (because it can either be a great idea or a terrible opportunity for destruction lol)

      • jsterling93

        We have his book shelf really low to the ground so that he can take whatever book he wants off the shelf to “read” whenever he wants. Typically all the books are on the floor :P But he will hand me one and I will start reading and then he screamed, yanks it away and tosses a different one at me. It is just typical toddler frustration.

    • Iwill Findu

      My daughter seem to thinks my name is milk, every time she wants me she signs for milk it’s a side effect if breast feeding. She’s also started signing “please” and will use please in place of “more” so at lest she’s polite.

    • OptimusPrime*

      GAHHHHHH (I’m done now). This post is not directed in frustration at the awesome Megan Zander but at people who buy into the “I taught my baby sign language” bull poop. Children raised in a home where ASL is the primary or only language develop language at roughly the same ages and in roughly the same ways as children exposed only to spoken language. ASL and every other sign language are real languages and are learned and acquired the same as any other language. Some children develop aspects of language use earlier (or later) than others. For the most part, early language development does not mean your kid is a frickin’ genius. It just means he/she is advanced in that skill in that particular moment. Stop with the darn ASL classes or videos and drop the flash cards in the trash, unless a true expert (a teacher, a case worker, a therapist, etc) have told you to use them. Off my soap box now.

      • M.

        That’s true as long as your baby has normal speech organs. My son was a late talker (no words until just after 2.5) partly because he had underdeveloped musculature that made it difficult for him to make sounds, especially in the presence of other sounds (ie. words). I used sign with him starting at about 2 because he and I were both getting very frustrated that he couldn’t express what he wanted. While babies will not be able to sign a whole lot earlier than they can talk, signing simple words (this is why so many pick up on “more” quickly, it’s a very easy sign to make) is a lot easier and takes a lot less fine motor control than speaking so many of them can, in fact, sign before they can talk. This doesn’t mean a 2 month old will be signing, but by a year most babies will start to pick up on signs (about the same time most babies start attempting words). With my son, though, we had to stop using the signs because it took away a lot of his motivation to use the sounds, which is something people should understand when they start using signs with their babies: some who use sign end up talking later because they don’t have a need to talk.

    • koolchicken

      What is it with the word more? That was the only sign my son knew too. Of course he always wants more of any food, so it was the only one he ever really needed. Until now of course. I really need to teach him the one for potty cause I am so through with mind reading.

      • M.

        It’s really easy for them to make, it’s one of the easiest ones, so a lot of babies pick that one up early on

      • Véronique the Attachment Shark

        Just like one of my daughter’s first words was “again” (and encore because she learned it in both languages)

    • alexesq33

      Yep my friend’s toddler just said “mamamamamamamama” all day – referring to everyone and everything. You can push past it and still have baby geniuses!! :)

    • http://www.twitter.com/ohladyjayne allisonjayne

      Ok, that was hilarious.

      My kid only ever learned milk and more. And she went through a stage while she was learning how to talk where she would just walk around going “tooka tooka tooka tooka” to everything. Still baffled by that one; I have NO idea what she was trying to say. I asked her about it the other day and she looked very concerned, then she farted and laughed, and that’s why you don’t ask 3 year olds anything.

      • Jen TheTit Whipper

        To be fair, I still laugh when I fart.

    • http://facebook.com/guineverew Guinevere

      My baby just signs “Baby” at everything. Babies, when I say “baby,” zucchini, my phone. Pictures of babies on boxes of stuff for babies. It’s cute. Redundantly cute.

    • wendyo

      I’ve been learning sign language for the past 24 years. It’s a complex, intricate, fully formed language with depth and nuance. It’s incredibly difficult to master. People erroneously think it’s just learning gestures to match English words. What you taught were signs…not language

    • Disciplined deaf girl

      Your problem does not lie with the sign language but with your inability to communicate with them. You misuse sign language. Ever think about um… discipline? Don’t come at their every beck and call… now they associate the sign, more, to a command and you need to stop enabling them to do that. I am one of eleven deaf kids, being the second oldest and my parents use ASL and I grew up just fine with ASL… hmmmmmm… a bad idea to teach signs? More like a bad idea to let the kids control you either using signs or vocal words!

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