Most of the time when your baby learns a new sign it’s hard to tell if they are actually doing a sign. Infants and toddlers don’t have fully developed fine motor skills yet. You have to think of it in the same way as a new baby learning it’s first words, they don’t always get it right. They may say “wa wa” for water or “da da” for dad. Just like with speaking, when a baby learns to sign they make attempts to mimic the actual sign that may not be exactly right.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell that they are actually doing a sign. I’ve had babies that have been producing signs for weeks without the parents realizing it. After awhile the parent will notice that their baby continues to do a hand gesture again and again, then they put two and two together and figure out what the hand gesture is actually symbolizing for their baby. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to sometimes subtle hand movements that your baby may be making.
For instance, the sign for “eat” is taking your hand with all your fingers and thumb pinched together and then taping at your mouth a few times. When my little girl started signing this I didn’t notice for awhile. She was just sticking one of her fingers in her mouth… which she did all the time even when she wasn’t trying to produce a sign. I finally realized at certain times she was deliberately doing this in an attempt to sign “eat”.
Once I realized she was trying to produce a sign (in the signing trial stage), I started to praise her and repeat the sign and word back to her. It’s so important to give them immediate and positive reinforcement. Any time a baby does produce a sign you should try as often as possible to: acknowledge their attempt with a positive response, “oh, good girl, you want to ‘eat’?”, while saying and signing the word. Then you also take their hand and help them to form the sign correctly.
Remember, if your baby was verbally saying a word wrong you wouldn’t normally mimic the word the wrong way, because that would reinforce using it incorrectly. You would continue to say the word the right way so that the child would naturally learn the correct way of saying it. In the same way, always continue to use the sign with the right hand shape and gesture, don’t change to do it the same way as your child… they will eventually develop better fine motor skills and be able to produce the sign correctly.
This is such an exciting stage of baby sign language development. Keep a positive attitude and stay consistent and I promise your baby will be signing like a pro. And who knows… maybe they already are, so keep a look out!