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Baby Sign Language

How to Add an Extra Dimension to Your Diaper-Free Communication...

Tribal Baby

Babies begin in a non-verbal world, yet they are powerful communicators. Why not use every tool to help you access their world as you guide them into our verbal culture - fine tune your body language and natural gestures with some 'Baby Sign Language'... it's really easy to do.

Introducing some simple signs gives your baby another effective way to communicate with you about their needs - and for you to talk with them.

I used baby sign language with Maven from around 5-6 months. A few sign and word 'combos' (as the sign is always done with the spoken word) such as milk, more, up, finished, hot, hug, gentle, and of course toilet. The first sign he used, not surprisingly, was 'toilet', when he was about 8 or 9 months old. He wasn't that regular with it, but we had a pretty good communication level anyway!

Using Baby Sign Language is a great bridge for non verbal communication. It complements Elimination Communication really well as it is based on respecting and attempting to understand the baby's messages from before they can verbally state them like the rest of us.

A 'Secret Code' to Communicate With Your Little One.

It is also fun in that it can be like a secret 'code' between you and your baby - so they can communicate their need in public, and you can respond by retiring to a toilet to help them relieve themselves - without anyone else the wiser...for your baby's privacy and discretion.

Gestural and body language is the first language we learn, and Elimination Communication is a strong basis for adding in sign language, as we are already primed to believe baby is trying to communicate and are open to learning from them and with them - attempting to close the barrier of communication. Experts seem to agree that a vast amount of our communication takes place non-verbally - using baby sign language can help us to decipher and appreciate more of this communication, as we develop our 'baby radar' - our innate, motherly or fatherly awareness and knowledge about our babies.

What Baby Sign To Use?

Really, you can choose any gesture that seems logical to you. As the signs are used for a while and then naturally drop in favour of spoken language, purity to an official sign language is not at all crucial. Think of it simply as another way of communicating - offering baby another way of communicating with you. I have always found offering many was the way to go - as he could then choose the one that appealed to him, or seemed easier to him. They changed over time - he would use different ones at different times.

Examples of Baby Sign language you might use to mean time for baby to use the potty or toilet:

- Patting at a thigh.

- Patting at the lower belly or hip - a pretty intuitive gesture.

- Pointing one finger into palm of other hand.

- Tugging at an earlobe.

- A fist with thumb between first two fingers, shaking from side to side.

- Rubbing hands together as if washing hands.

5 Tips for Getting Started Using Baby Sign Language at Potty Time:

  • Do the sign when you notice a physical sign or voluntary signal from baby in relation to a statement, such as "You need to go to the toilet (sign). I'll help you."

  • Do the sign whenever you need to leave the room to go to the bathroom, even when you take the baby along, such as "I need to go to the toilet (sign) for a quick wee"

  • Do the sign if baby is in the toilet with you when you go. "I'm having a wee (sign). Ahh, finished now (sign)"

  • Do the sign while your baby is on the potty now and then, such as "You're doing a wee (sign) Ahh, that feels better, doesn't it. Looks like you've finished your wee"

  • Do the sign when the baby has an accident. For example "Oops, You're doing a wee wee (sign). Missed that one! Let's clean that up. The potty (sign) is over there (point to it)"

What to Expect or Look for when Introducing Baby Sign Language:

Signs can basically be used in relation to any toileting activity - using the potty, toilet, having an accident, talking about using the bathroom. They do sort out the before, during and after aspect in time - usually as a toddler.

Meanwhile they may associate using the bathroom, or going to the bathroom, seeing the potty itself, or using the potty, or having had an accident, or seeing a sign for 'Toilet" while out and about all as the same sign. This is fine - it tells you they are recognising the sign.

They may respond by facial expression or gesture, body language with a positive or negative when you use the sign to ask if they happen to need to go. For us, a 'No thanks' was always really clear, whereas a 'Yes, please' was a calm expression, or looking to the toilet place, or simply waiting for assistance. Later it may be grabbing a hand to go with them for company.

Initial signs will be approximate - they do mix them a bit, and so you'll need to use your intuition and the context to work out what they mean. Don't 'correct' their sign, but make the sign in response, showing them - they will develop the dexterity as soon as they are able.

Baby Sign Language helps with Elimination Communication (EC). Here's Monique and Osha They are easy for her to copy, and the double tap makes them very clear...

"We decided to make up our own signs for 'wee' and 'poo'. I wanted something that I could do with one hand (as I am often holding Osha when I ask her) and I wanted something that was within our line of sight when we made eye contact.

We use an open hand to touch our ear twice for 'wee' and we use an open hand to touch our nose twice for 'poo'. Osha picked them up within a couple of weeks, so they are easy for her to copy, and the double tap makes them very clear. She sometimes plays with her ears, but it is obviously different, and she is generally trying to make eye contact with us when she wants to tell us about a wee or poo."

Monique, Gawler, South Australia. Mum to Shahnan and Osha.

Using a co-operative sign to communicate with baby:

Here is a logical way of using a physical sign with baby to help them communicate a need to go. It is nice as it involves the baby coming up to the parent, as of course they'll still need your help!

"We were late starters to ECing. Our son was 9 months old when we learned about it and began. Here is a suggestion that worked well for us. Our son did not give any 'cues' when we first started, so we taught him one ourselves that seemed to work really well. We taught him to gently pat us on the shoulders/chest when he needed to make a tinkle. We did this by gently taking his hand and guiding him to pat us when we took him to the potty (using largely timing), and we would say "Lets try to go potty". We did this every single time, and within a week, he was patting us (or the table, or the sofa!), telling us that he needed to make a tinkle. This lasted a good few months, until he became able to verbalize his needing to go by 18 months."
Lyn , from the USA.

An analogy between baby sign language as a concept to myths about babies pottying abilities

It is a common, and entrenched myth that babies have no awareness of their elimination needs, and no ability to communicate them. Of course this is silly! (In fact it is based on observations of babies that have been in nappies full time since birth, who of course have little awareness of their body)

It has also crossed my mind that waiting until our babies can walk to the toilet, remove their clothing, climb on and off and wipe themselves before commencing the transition out of nappies, just letting them wee and poo in their clothing, could be compared with saying a baby can't talk so there is no point trying to communicate with them or talking to them until they can talk to us at two or three or four. No-one does this, so it is only a little step to again consider toilet learning in the same gradual way.

Everyone knows this is a crazy idea as babies slowly learn these skills and abilities gradually from immersion and lots of opportunities to experience and learn about their capabilities and how their bodies work - why should toilet learning be any different?

Baby pottying is similar to talking to our baby as an infant even though we know they can't understand us for quite some time. Nevertheless, the way they love listening to our voices and enjoy and learn from the constant interaction, with baby pottying, they greatly enjoy our intent to help them, the caring gentle touching and the feelings of relief at having their needs met in this integral part of their experience.

My insights into using baby sign language and elimination communication (Elimination Communication):

1. Using Baby Signs as a Question to Baby:

A great benefit I found generally for signs was the recognition factor. Even as adults our recognition is far better than our recall, as our visual memories are more ancient. So, long before Maven could sign to me he would recognise signs and respond to them.

For instance I would make the breast milk sign (patting my upper chest), and watch for his response - and he would be jumping around in delighted anticipation. This was well before he began actively signing around one (though he used signs before then.) I'd then use the sign during his feed when it was suitable, and say/sign 'milk milk finished' at the end. Consequently he began using the 'finished' sign when he'd done his business in toilet breaks too; it was excellent for finer communication, especially as he'd also use it as an 'I don't need to go' signal if I were to offer a timing pit stop he didn't need.

2. Using Signs as Emphasis, to reinforce or clarify something:

I found that if he was tired or distracted, not really catching to verbal instructions, using the sign was like an emphasis much preferred over repeating myself or getting louder. It'd seem like he'd be thinking 'Oh, that's what you said' or 'Oh, I see what you mean'.

3. Help your baby recognise the sign for 'finished' - it's a SUPER sign!

In the young toddler stage the 'finished' sign was very helpful for Maven to indicate when he was finished a wee, or a poo. I introduced it in other areas, such as 'finished' after a breastfeed or drinking or eating, or any activity, then did it when he finished a wee. In time, he used it himself. He also used it to indicate he didn't need to go, sometimes that he didn't want to go, so I'd experiment / offer another toilet place if I knew he needed to go. It was a very helpful communication tool. The gesture we used for this sign was rubbing our hands together, as if dusting our hands off after finishing a task. We used the words 'finished' or 'all done'. A VERY helpful addition to our Elimination Communication journey.

4. Communicating at his level

I definitely felt that using gestures and signs seemed like an ancient, natural way to communicate, as a logical bridge between the physical, non verbal and touch-oriented experience of the baby to a world of external communication. Using signs has helped me to be in the 'baby zone', to slow down to his perspective, to gain an insight (many insights) into his thought processes, which has helped me to 'tweak' our communication in other areas, and in future signing and Elimination Communication moments.

This is an article with more insights into Elimination Communication and baby sign language written by Laurie Boucke, who has been advocating for Elimination Communication or "Infant Potty Training" for over twenty years now, having learnt about and practiced it with her third child. She encourages sign language as a means of communication with all babies.

5. Baby sign language and Elimination Communication are great partners!

Using Baby Sign Language has been a useful tool during our Elimination Communication experience - yet another way to make a full and holistic approach to bonding and learning with our baby Maven. 

Really, any insight that helps us to bridge the gap between our verbal culture and the visual, initially largely non verbal world of our babies as they continuously communicate with us, can only help us understand and empathise with them more clearly.

I feel it helps us to improve our capacity for observation of the sounds, signs and gestures they are generally making, to help guide us as parents to perhaps a more astute knowledge of our babies.

This article is particularly thought provoking:
Baby Signing and Language Development


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Learning More About Signing with your Baby:

My Baby Sign Language Visual Directory

Baby Signing and Language Development

Wikipedia Entry on Baby Sign Language

Use Baby Sign Language to Help Your Baby Use Less Diapers!

Elimination Communication is
                 what is also known as how to potty train your baby.

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Part Time Diaper Free is a site dedicated to helping you to reduce your reliance on full-time diapers. I'll help you to develop your diaper-free confidence with my fun (and free!) eBook about part-time elimination communication, the 7 Secrets. Elimination Communication is a gentle practice helping you deepen your conscious understanding of your relationship with your baby, supporting a secure attachment. Re-discover this ancient and alternative way of managing your baby's hygiene needs, while using diapers as backup* ......YES! Practicing Elimination Communication means REDUCING your use of diapers gradually. 'No diapers allowed' is not true... * Like using modern cloth diapers, it's also addictive and a lot of fun!
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