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Speech Development Blog by Tiffany Bartlett

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Why Use Sign Language to Help Your Toddler Talk

Speech Development Tip 3: Introduce simple sign language to your child.

You may ask yourself, “why should I use sign language to help my toddler talk?” My answer is simple.  You can’t force your child to talk, but you can teach your child to sign.  You can show him a need for communication.  From birth, babies make their needs known.  Children will continue to make their needs or wants known, even if they can not verbally communicate them.  Unfortunately, if children can not communicate their wants and needs verbally, they often become frustrated and act out.  They start grabbing, crying, screaming, and having tantrums, when we are unable to understand what they are trying to communicate.  Sign language is a way to reduce this frustration.  Saying to your child, “use your words” or “just tell me what you want” will not make your child talk.  However, taking your child’s  hands in yours and showing your daughter how to sign “help” when she needs help zipping up her jacket, can prevent an unwanted tantrum!


There are many books available that teach baby sign language.  Start with a few simple signs.  You don't need to make your toddler fluent in sign.  Remember the purpose of sign language with a child who is delayed in speech, is to reduce frustration and to show the need for communication.  Unless your child is hearing impaired and will be using sign language as the primary language, you also do not have to use the exact signs.  If your child is unable to sign a sign exactly, you can modify the sign.  If you choose to simplify of modify a sign, make sure you are consistent, so your child is not confused. 


A common fear with sign language, is the fear that my child will become dependent on sign language and not use words.  As a child's speech improves the signing will naturally be replaced by words.  If your child gets to the point that he is able to say a word, but is refusing and using the signs only, it is no longer a speech issue, but a behavior issue.  My suggestion then would be to withold what he is asking for, until he uses his words.  For example, your child now knows how to say "milk", but is insisting on signing milk without using his words.  Respond by saying, "tell me milk" and wait for him to say "milk."  If he refuses, you can say, "no signs, tell me milk."  This, however,  is not a common occurence.   As I said before, signing will naturally be replaced by words when your child begins to talk.


If your toddler is a late talker, you can use basic sign language to reduce frustration and increase your toddler’s ability to communicate effectively.

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