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FAQ: Why is my baby refusing to sign or use signs they've already used before?

I receive a lot of questions from parents asking about their babies who suddenly stop signing a sign they were signing before, or refuse to sign back when asked to use their signs to confirm what they want, and start fussing instead.

Should we push back and refuse to give them what they want when they choose not to sign it?

To answer this, I need to ask a question back… do you want to be in a power struggle?

Or more importantly:

How would you like to be treated when you have a request or a need?

My son, Ian, was a champion at impatiently throwing things or violently banging his arms at times. Suddenly I found myself knee-deep in power struggles with him almost every day… I was frustrated, he was frustrated.

Soon it dawned on me that we were both having the same feelings and getting nowhere.

And maybe me trying to muscle through getting what I wanted to happen was why he was doing the same thing.

I started seeing him as a tiny human with needs, which allowed me more patience and I stopped engaging, I stopped seeing who could exert more power.

Instead I started using active listening to turn things around, a tool I learned in my child psychology course for classroom management at university.

Active listening is a technique used in counselling where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated non-verbally, too.

In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully.

So I applied this approach to my toddler and I made sure I was paying attention during those moments when he'd start to fuss instead of using words or signs.

And I'd make sure to reply with the verbal words and signs to confirm I was paying attention, here's what I think you want, and here's what we'll do next.

It worked!

I could feel the energy shift from frustration to collaboration every time.

If you are finding yourself in a situation that feels like a power struggle or is tricky because you know that signs would work here but they're not using them or they're not responding, think about how YOU would like to be responded to…

Think about how good it would feel for someone to pay attention, to look at you, to listen and confirm what they think you want.

And then respond to your request.

This is such a freeing place to be instead of within a power struggle.

Let's break down how this can work with our babies and signing:

1. ACKNOWLEDGE you heard them

2. CONFIRM what you think they are saying


3. RESPOND with whatever you decide is appropriate to happen next (we can have that/ we are doing this right now) by using your verbal words alongside your signs.

Using verbal words and signs together is exactly how we hope our babies will act and use language themselves. When we model this, it becomes an extremely powerful tool.

So instead of waiting for your baby to sign a sign that you know they can sign, skip the power struggle.

Try this active listening approach and clearly model how things can work with verbal words and signs together instead.

Let me know how it goes!


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