My Toddler Learned Baby Signing And Now She’s The Boss

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My daughter wakes up. It’s early. She looks at me, smiles, and moves her arms in the breaststroke motion. She wants to go swimming. Again. And she’s telling me in sign language. After breakfast, she asks to go swimming. In the car seat on the way to the store, she asks to go swimming. While she’s eating her snack, she asks to go swimming. Finally, we go swimming.

When she was an infant, I took her to baby signing classes for the songs, the company, and because I thought signing would help her communicate her needs. She attended classes for about nine months without signing very much, other than the occasional “milk,” where she’d open and close her hands once in a while when she felt like nursing. The other sign she adopted early was “music,” her index fingers pointing upwards in the air and rotating a bit, and she used this sign to ask us to turn the music on frequently (this is the British sign; the American one is slightly different). I thought her baby signs might be limited to those two when I moved away from the group. But two months ago, in a new town without a baby-signing group in sight, everything changed.

She started banging on my chest when she wanted to nurse. This became uncomfortable for me and awkward at social gatherings. Something had to change. Each time she tried to hit my chest, I caught her arms and made the milk sign, saying, “Do you want milk? Make the sign!” I didn’t withhold milk if she didn’t make the sign, but most often, she’d open and close her fists and then I’d let her nurse. Within a week, the sign had completely replaced the chest-hitting, in a big way: it seemed that whenever I turned around, there she was, opening and closing her hands. It was great to see her frustration evaporate when she could tell me what she wanted. I reinforced her communicative efforts, nursing her on demand.

Maybe the relief of communicating her needs served as the gateway to making other signs, or maybe she’d just reached a developmental moment in which signing made more sense to her. She’d been saying words starting around nine months: mama, poppy, tickle, hello, bye-bye. Signing milk and music had come around ten months. But now, at fourteen months, her sign language exploded—she started signing a lot, and often: sleep, food, more, all done, shoes, diaper change, and of course her new favorite: swimming. Her father and I were delighted. “She wants to go swimming!” we said. “That’s so adorable!” There are few things as cute as a tiny toddler staring up at you imploringly as she makes air-swimming motions.

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