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How I am teaching my deaf baby sign language

how to teach your deaf baby sign language
Prior to giving birth to my son Cooper, who has profound hearing loss, I only knew a few basic signs.

At one point I’d known the alphabet, but even that was long gone by the time Cooper came along. I decided to teach my deaf baby sign language.

Upon being told our baby was deaf, one of the first thoughts I had was that I barely knew any sign language. I felt panicky as if I’d been hit with a diagnosis and daunting task all at once. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to communicate with my baby or be able to give him the tools to communicate. Though we ultimately decided to go the cochlear implant route for Cooper, we are still learning and using sign language as much as we can. 

If I’m being honest, trying to learn sign language alone and online has been frustrating and discouraging. I often feel as if I don’t know nearly enough, or like I’m not doing enough to bring Cooper’s natural language to him. But in those moments, I have to remind myself that what I know now is much more than I knew six months ago. 

Here are a few of the things I’ve found helpful about teaching my deaf baby (and myself) sign language along the way. 

Start basic signs early 

For us, this meant introducing certain baby signs, like milk and bath, and sleep. As a beginner to sign language, these are easy to learn and remember. We started these with Cooper when he was just a few months old. One of my biggest worries with signing was that I would forget to do it, simply because it’s new to me too. So I found that only having three or so activities associated with a sign made it feel more manageable early on. At seven months old, Cooper is recognizing certain signs. It’s incredibly rewarding to see that recognition in his actions. He hasn’t signed back yet, at least not that we’ve recognized. I have no doubt that he is on track to do so. 

“I found that only having three or so activities associated with a sign made it feel more manageable early on.”

Research online options 

There are tons of resources, ranging from free introduction courses to full online courses through colleges. There are also some in-between options that offer some form of structure but are not for credit or degree. For me, these have been the most helpful. Courses like this are available for a monthly fee on some websites. Some sites even allow a parent of a deaf child to apply for the course and then they are granted access for free. Although my preference would be to learn ASL in an actual classroom environment, I don’t have that option right now. I’ve actually managed to learn a decent amount through online courses. At least enough to express the basics, like the beginning of any language course. 

Don’t focus on perfection

This has always been the biggest hurdle for me to overcome when it comes to learning a new language. When I do things, I like to do them right. But I’ve had to let go of that in learning to sign. If I let myself be consumed by fear of messing up, I’d never make any progress. Because I take courses online, I’m often practicing alone. This makes it easier to let go of the desire to be correct all the time. I’ve even forced myself to take a few videos and post them. It’s out of my comfort zone but this allows me to grow and gain confidence. 

Let professionals step in

We have a fantastic early intervention team. I have no doubt that their abilities are far beyond mine when it comes to teaching Cooper to sign. We’ve had conversations about wanting spoken language to be Cooper’s primary way of communicating and the importance of him knowing basic signs. The reason for this is two-fold: we want to be able to communicate with him if he is not using his cochlear implants. We want him to have a foundation if in the future he decides that he wants ASL to be his primary way to communicate. I know that I will likely never be fluent in ASL. Because of that, it’s best to let those who are fluent teach him. Of course, I’ll do my best to keep up as well. But in the end, it’s in Cooper’s best interest to let professionals guide the way. 

Read more: What having a deaf baby has taught me

Practice patience when teaching your deaf baby sign language

At times, it can feel like you’ve made the sign for “milk” 99 times and your baby still doesn’t quite grasp it. And that’s okay, because the 100th time, they just might show you that they understood the sign. And that glint of recognition makes it all worth it. But beyond being patient with your baby, be patient with yourself.

If you’re anything like me, you’re balancing being a mom and working, among many other things. Learning another language is a lot to take in. It’s okay if it’s a slow process. Don’t worry about feeling like you’re not any good. What matters is that you continue to work to improve, whenever and however you can find the time to do so. Doing something, even if a little at a time, is better than doing nothing at all. 

Beth Leipholtz
Author Details
Beth is a Minnesotan mama to a little boy with profound hearing loss. Outside of writing, she is a full-time web designer and photographer with a passion for CrossFit and small-town living. Visit her personal blog here: www.thescooponcoop.com
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Beth Leipholtz
Beth is a Minnesotan mama to a little boy with profound hearing loss. Outside of writing, she is a full-time web designer and photographer with a passion for CrossFit and small-town living. Visit her personal blog here: www.thescooponcoop.com