[BOOK REVIEW] Sign with Your Baby: How to Communicate with Infants Before They Can Speak

Book Author: Dr. Joseph Garcia

On the cover of the book Sign with Your Baby by Joseph Garcia a baby with light skin and blue eyes is viewed close up. The baby has their mouth open in a excited smile with two teeth on the bottom. The baby has their hands clapped together. In the center left of the book cover the title and author are written in black with a transparent white rectangle behind it.

Page Count: 106


Content warning for the text of this review: Parent Illness

Tumors Hearing loss

Deaf culture appropriation in the mainstream


 

My History with Signs, Briefly Told:


My mom lost her hearing in phases over the 20-year span of her illness. She had brain tumors. Our house growing up had flash cards and Intro to American Sign Language books scattered around that she and my dad had collected to help us communicate in the moment, and also as an investment, knowing her hearing was only going to get worse. We'd hoped she would find community through visual language.


Because learning a language is hard, to be honest, many of those resources collected dust.


My parents figured out, after a night class and many re-watches of VHS tapes called Say It With Sign, the signs they considered foundational in our family culture (day, food, beautiful). Our family of five used our spattering of signs, clumsily, in tandem with good eye contact and clear, slow speech.


(Amazing discovery: Say It With Sign exists on the internet.)


I’m sharing this part of my history with ASL (or our makeshift interpretation of it) to disclose that I had some knowledge and practice using signs to communicate going into this book. I wasn’t and still am not an expert. I’ve had some exposure. Read to the end of this article for my notes on ability and appropriation.

 

Sign with Your Baby has an accompanying video, so it functions well as a reference to visit between video viewings. My copy from the library did not include the DVD so I won’t be able to comment on that, which makes this, appropriately, a book review only.


I’m glad that I read this book to:

  1. Mentally register a catalog of signs specifically for use communicating with infants.

  2. Garner an appreciation for the fact that the signs used to communicate with infants may not align with American Sign Language or other official sign languages. Baby sign "language" has no grammar or syntax. It is not a language. Visual languages like American Sign Language are developed, complex languages.

  3. Understand it’s okay to follow the infant’s lead. Whatever version of a sign they produce, as long as you understand their meaning, is correct.

  4. Write this article and, through research and engagement, learn some cultural complexities of which I had been unaware.

Signs I've used most regularly with infants include:

  1. More. Quantity values may seem conceptually advanced to offer someone who’s been on the planet less than a year or two, but it’s actually great for early learners because “more” can also mean “some.” It works at the kitchen table and in the playspace. “More” can mean “I would like another bite,” or, “Please stack one more block on that tower.” It’s fabulous for establishing consent if used with hugs, lotion applications, how high they want their jacket zipper zipped up -- I try to get creative with it! Others that sign with babies may choose to keep it simple with one usage (feeding).

  2. All done/Finished. More’s partner is less. “All done” functions as “less.” Similar to “more,” it functions also as a great consent word. In this case, it means, “no,” “stop,” or “don’t.” During feeding, it can mean, “I’m satisfied with my meal,” which is a lot to communicate just by flailing your arms. I’ve typically seen infants interpret it with a flail at first. It's very cute.

  3. Milk. It’s easy to remember because it looks just like milking a cow. I like to sign “milk” with one hand with the bottle ready near me and then hold the bottle up to make the association.

  4. Up. Adults often interrupt babies to pick them up and it must be very annoying to the babies. I love “up” for offering the child some warning that they’re about to be vertically relocated. As they learn to sign “up” for themselves, babies can ask to get a cuddle need met with “up” or for assistance to see or reach something up high.

By Dmitry Lobanov. In the center left of the image an infant with light skin and short curly hair is wearing a white onesie. The infant is sitting on a white floor in front of a white background with legs crossed at the ankles. The infant is pointing with their left hand and looking up and to the left with an expression of wonder.

This is also a helpful option for me as a short adult! I can silently point at things I want taller people to grab for me and suddenly possess those things.


5. Change. For this one you put one fist on top of the other and then switch their positions, so the one that was on the top moves to the bottom. I tend to make a hook shape with my pointer fingers while I do it but that’s not required. Babies will typically mimic it by putting their hands together and holding them up. With so many diaper changes per day, increased communication can do a lot to nourish your relationship with the child and ease transitions. It can also be a helpful metric for gauging baby’s bodily function awareness as they grow into a toddler.

 

You're Still a Good Parent if You Don't Use Baby Signs


It's entirely possible the benefits that have been studied regarding the use of signs with infants under one year of age had more to do with parent emphasis on communication than the value of the symbolic gestures themselves. Here's an article from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association overviewing baby signing research and controversy with references if you want to dig deeper.


If communication is your goal, signs are an option to choose from, and there are other options. For example, RIE: Resources for Infant Educarers is all about communicating respectfully with infants and I wrote about it here.

 

Notes on Ability and Appropriation


I don’t want to talk baby signs without addressing the debate about it. Choosing to sign with your baby necessarily comes with a commitment to supporting Deaf culture and honoring its history.


As the daughter of a parent who identified as hard of hearing, I encourage hearing baby sign practitioners to make a commitment to continue using signs throughout the child’s life. I cannot represent the Deaf community or the diversity found within it. The nuances of my opinions are subject to change as I explore and grow in my allyship, but my understanding currently is that if you’re going to use signs at all, be consistent. Stopping the use of signs when a baby can speak sends the message that speaking languages are more complex or advanced and therefore superior. That’s not true at all, and it’s a harmful message to promote.

Photo by Andrey_Popov. In the center-left of the image, a preteen child with dark skin and long hair with braids is wearing a pink polo shirt in front of a white backgroud. The child is smiling and making eye contact with an adult in the right side of the image. The two people are sitting on a couch together and both are signing with their hands. The adult has dark skin and short curly hair and is wearing a white shirt.

Introduce children of all ages to Deaf culture and visual languages through books, videos, events, and whatever opportunities can be forged at each stage of their development.


I also want to acknowledge in reference to this book review that, as I understand it, Dr. Garcia is not deaf or hard of hearing, and that’s complicated. Here are some ASL resources created by Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing individuals or groups:

  • I watch Jessica Kellgren-Fozard’s YouTube channel at least weekly because her videos are well-researched, well-produced, authentic, and just fun! As her About page describes, she’s "adding vintage lesbian fabulousness to a life with disabilities and chronic illnesses.” Her ASL tutorials playlist has 53 videos in it at the time I'm writing this, and she takes requests! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhADVL2AiGX_4qLaeWvrvDiFS0ixNOu-w

  • Gallaudet University - ASL Connect. Gallaudet has a powerful history I encourage you to explore alongside their free ASL learning materials. https://www.gallaudet.edu/asl-connect

  • Bill Vickars has a doctorate in Deaf Education / Deaf Studies and offers free resources for self-learning in addition to paid classes. My internet browsing revealed several forums of his students saying he’s the best. They seemed adamant. http://www.lifeprint.com

You may have noticed that the above list isn’t specific to parents. I was able to find several resources for kids, but I couldn’t confirm creator identities. Please send me your recommendations for Deaf-created resources that a parent wanting to introduce their child to American Sign Language could engage with. I’d love to explore and share them, and will be especially excited if they align with other body-positive ideals.


Happy communicating!

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