Many of the written resources on the topic of baby sign language available to new moms advise waiting until their baby is between 6 and 9 months old to begin teaching them to sign. This information is outdated and does not take into account that communication is in large part receptive comprehension. Parents who are deaf and have hearing or deaf children do not wait to begin signing to their babies, my mom signed with me since birth and I thought it made sense to do the same with my first child for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted to be in practice of something that I valued (to bond with her) and knew that visual cues were easier for babies to decipher than verbal ones. Two, I thought it would be far easier to get my husband to be in practice of signing if it was just the regualr normal thing we did from the beginning, like breastfeeding, not like we were adding in a new quirky thing when she got a little older. Three, newborns make far more eye contact and respond to our motherese/parentese talk, which is the perfect place to demonstrate signs for a newborn. Motherese speak is something we do inherently, nobody has to teach it to us. A stranger on the street when they glance at a baby and make eye contact cannot help themself but to use the softer sweeter voice that is music to a baby's ear along with the higher pitch and repetition of words. Our genes are designed to bond with babies in this way. Four, infants will gaze at the human face for longer periods than they will gaze at any other object, and in signing our facial expression is a key part to expressing a sign, so why not make use of this natural gaze and be in communication with signs, expression, and voice? Five, once your baby gets to be mobile, your world changes, and trying to grab their attention is not so easy, there is a finite amount of time where your baby just wants to look at you, it is their time for bonding, and signing is a great bonding practice. Six, in the beginning parents are learning to sign first, then showing their baby, so these early days give you a chance to practice plenty, which will make it easier to mesh into your regular daily activiites!
My firstborn proved to take to signing like a duck takes to water, she began signing MILK at 4 months old. She was a sensitive baby or what I learned from Dr. Sears, a high needs baby, one who really had a desire to tell me what she felt and thought, she still fulfills on that trait today! She would relax a little in the carseat next to me in the backseat when I would sing and sign the ABC's... She clearly understood when I signed MILK to her and would turn to nurse, she had been paying attention to all those people waving, as people love to do to new babies, and first showed a resemblance of a wave to our friend at about 4 months old, which got me thinking to really be diligent in practicing the sign for MILK with her, and in one day we conquered the goal of giving her a clear way to communicate about her world, even if it was just one simple word, a pretty important one for infants, though! My second child was more laid back, had less of a "need" to tell me as much. Even though he didn't sign until 7 months old, he would respond positively to signs I used with him, i.e. MILK, he'd get into nursing position at just a couple months old and when I signed BATH to him when he began crawling at 5 1/2 months old, he went right for the stairs where we always went up to take a bath! I knew he was understanding me so we were at least on our way. Then with my third, he surprised me by signing MILK at just 2 months old. this is the age when babies tend to practice opening and closing their hands naturally anyway, but he would only do it after I'd sign MILK to him, he'd learned a specific reason to use this natural baby motion in just a short time. And yes, I have witnesses to this occurring on a number of occassions.
Here is a little clip with the signs we found useful in the beginning... the earlier the better, but you're never too late to start!
Joann Woolley is owner and instructor of Sign4Baby in San Diego teaching parents how to communicate with their preverbal baby using American Sign Language. With her in depth knowledge of ASL as her first language she takes you beyond just the basics in signing, also filling your parenting toolbelt with parenting tips and tricks coupled with signing as a great boundary teaching (discipline) tool for toddlers. View the schedule of classes at sign4baby