You may not realize it yet, but your baby is a brilliant behaviorist. In fact, infants have been skillfully employing B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning methods on their lab-rat parents with remarkable success since their very first breaths.
“How?” You ask.
It’s a well-known fact that crying is how babies communicate their needs. But the truth is that not only is crying a form of communication, it is also a stimulus to provoke a response. In Operant Conditioning, this is called “negative reinforcement” – obtaining a desired action (i.e. feeding) through removing an unpleasant stimulus (i.e. crying) once the desired action is performed. By rewarding our compliance with ceasing to cry, they condition us to immediately respond to their insistent requests.
My son Isaiah is one of the most genius behaviorists ever. At eight months old, he switched up his crying-stimulus with screech-screaming to convey his displeasure and condition us to respond.
Let’s just say we nearly lost our minds like the old, abused lab-rats we were.
But instead of resigning ourselves to such a fate, we made a battle-plan to turn the tables on him using positive reinforcement – the introduction of a rewarding stimulus (i.e. feeding) upon obtaining a desired behavior. In this instance, the behavior we hoped to obtain was communication through baby signing.
Baby signing is communicating with your baby through the use of American Sign Language (ASL) or symbolic hand motions. Once our screeching-son learned that he could convey his desires through signing, the stress level in our house dramatically diminished.
As did the decibel level.
Our success wasn’t instantaneous though. When we first began teaching Isaiah, he was not at all interested in what-the-heck-we-were-doing-with-our-hands. Instead, he was intensely focused on the object in our hands (usually food). What we learned from him was that babies need frequent, consistent repetition in order to connect meaning to gestures.
Think about it, we teach infants to sign from an early age: high fives, fist bumps, clapping, waving, and making motions to songs like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Babies acquire these gestures naturally because we perform them frequently under the same set of conditions. If babies can learn these motions from a young age, they can learn how to sign. But as with all reinforcement, consistent repetition is the key.
Here are the four signs our family has found most helpful:
How to teach it: Clustering your fingertips all together as if you had an imaginary puppet on each hand, touch the fingertips of both hands together. This is an easy one for kids to do and for you to recognize. The best way to teach it is to give a little bit of food to your baby and reserve the rest out of their reach. Every time they finish what’s in front of them, sign and say “more,” and then give them a little more. After a couple days, wait for them to give the sign back to you before giving them the food. It works best to keep this word just for asking for more food or drink.
Why teach it: Before my son learned “more,” he would scream whenever he finished the food in front of him. The actual process of teaching him made him even more furious, but after practicing for several days at every meal, he caught on and quit screaming when he was all out of food. I really wish we had started teaching him sooner.
How to teach it: Rub your chest with a flat palm. Use this when you know your child wants something. Hold what they want in your hand, show them the sign while saying, “please,” and give them the object of their desire. Just like with “more,” use it consistently for a few days and then wait to see if they will sign for you before giving them what they want. To avoid confusion with “more” in the early stages of signing, use this with anything except food and drink.
Why teach it: I am a sucker for holding my son anytime he wants to be held. But at the age of one, I didn’t want him screeching at me, demanding for me to hold him. Now he knows that all he needs to do is say “please” and I will scoop him up in an instant.
How to teach it: Technically, the ASL sign for “help” is to make a fist with your right hand and set it on the open palm of your left hand and then draw both hands upward together in this position. My kids found it a little hard to differentiate between the motion for “help” and the motion for “more” because both require that your hands touch each other. So we decided to make our family’s sign for “help” a fist in the air, like Superman flying (fitting, right?). When your baby is whining out of frustration, offer the “help” sign and then assist them.
Why teach it: This sign was so helpful for both of my kids. It empowered them to know that help was on the way and they didn’t need to get frustrated.
How to teach it: To sign “wait,” hold your first three fingers out so that they form a “w.” Use this when your child asks for something and you can’t get it for them immediately. I have introduced this when my children have signed “more” or “please.” I give the sign, say “wait” reassuringly, and delay giving them what they want for 10 seconds or so.
Why teach it: There are times when your kids want something that you just can’t give them, maybe because you are trying to make the food or you have your hands full. Signing “wait” for them confirms that you know what they want and will give it to them momentarily.
If you are serious about implementing signing with your baby, I’d suggest going on YouTube to find videos of different signs you can use. When you introduce the first sign, wait until your child has mastered it before adding a new one. Once signing has been established as a means of communication between you and your baby, you can start introducing signs for objects too. In our family, we use signs for “dog,” “cat,” “Cheerios,” “milk,” “Mom,” and “Dad.”
Communicating through baby signing may have freed us from being the subjects of our son’s negative reinforcement trials. But implementing sign language hasn’t just reduced crying in our household. More importantly, it has given our son confidence that his parents understand him, which fosters a more secure attachment. Don’t get me wrong – we’re incredibly grateful to have regained our sanity, but the most rewarding effect of signing has been the strengthened bond between us and our son.