We’ve all uttered the frustrated words ‘if only he could tell me what he wants!’ when our baby is crying…and crying…and crying!  If you think that your little one won’t be able to communicate with you until they start talking, think again!  Baby signing is becoming an increasingly popular activity with mums and young babies. We look at how the trend started and how babies and parents can benefit from using sign language.

A general introduction

Baby signing is a type of non-verbal communication that babies, as young as six months, can use to communicate with their parents. The advantage is that you no longer have to play a guessing game about what your child wants, thinks or feels. In fact, your baby will be able to communicate much more to you than just his basic needs. They can say that they have seen a ‘duck’ in the pond or that they are glad it’s ‘bath’ time.

This is possible through sign language because babies gain control of their hands long before their control of their vocal chords and co-ordination of lip, tongue and teeth movements are ready to make understandable speech.

The idea of teaching babies how to communicate through signs was inspired by Dr Joseph Garcia, an American child development expert. He saw how easily hearing babies of deaf parents learned sign language and noticed that these babies appeared less demanding than non-signing babies precisely because they could express their thoughts and needs more easily. He thought why shouldn’t hearing parents of hearing babies enjoy the benefits of signing, too?

Baby signing gives parents and babies a means through which to communicate before verbal ability kicks in. Rather than hindering speech, baby signing groups say that it helps promote early language development, as spoken words are always used at the same time as the sign is made. Learning to sign can help boost a baby’s self-esteem and self-confidence while reducing frustration levels.

How baby signing works

At first, there’s a lot for babies to take in. They learn that objects have names and that these names correspond to a certain hand shape (sign) and a sound that you speak to them at the same time (word). It is important to establish a link between the object, the sign and the spoken word. Only after this can you start ‘moulding’ their hands into the shapes to make the correct sign.

When babies realise that, by making the shape they are making themselves understood, they generally get quite excited by their new-found ability! This helps to encourage them to learn more shapes and signs.

Signing and verbal development

Many parents wonder if baby signing will actually delay their child’s verbal development. Dr Garcia insisted that signing, rather than replacing language, is about enhancing it. It must be used alongside normal speech so your baby can make a link between the gesture and the  word. And, because you look at each other as you communicate, your baby will be   concentrating hard on what you are saying, as well as what you are doing.

When do you start seeing results?

This all depends on a child’s age when they start learning to sign. Generally speaking, babies can start signing back to their parents between four to six weeks after first learning the signs. Older babies and children will learn quicker as they will be able to understand verbal  communication more easily. However, as with everything else, children all develop at different speeds so it will really depend on your child’s own character and abilities.

Let’s do it!

As with any new activity, it’s essential you go at your baby’s pace and keep it fun, rather than serious! Timing can be important – try to coincide it with the time when your baby is really trying to communicate with you – normally around nine or 10 months. You should also start with a sign that your baby will really be interested in – ‘more’ is very popular with babies, especially since it has a big connection to food!

When you use the word, make sure you always sign it too. Use the same sign, use loads of repetition and emphasise the word in your questions and answers, e.g. ‘Can you see a duck? You can see a duck! It’s a pretty duck isn’t it?’

What happens when it stops?

When your child is able to express herself verbally, and doesn’t need the signs, they will naturally stop using them as much. But they still might come in handy when your child is too tired to speak, at the end of the day, for example. Signs are also useful for talking toddlers to
emphasise the importance of a message to you, e.g. they want their food NOW or if they are really excited by a proposed trip to the park! And should you have another child, the older sibling may use their skills to try to communicate with the newcomer, thus strengthening the bond between the two, and making an older brother or sister feel a very important member of the family!

Baby Signing : Tried and tested

‘Although I did not use a set guide with my first daughter Kaija I made my own signs with her. Fingers patting mouth was ‘food’, pretending to hold cup and drinking was ‘drink’. She picked this up very quickly and communicated very well but did not speak for a long time and when she did was very jumbled. I thought I had somehow done something wrong but found out when she was three that she had severe glue ear and had only 25% range of hearing!

I am thankful now she had some means to communicate. Mind you, six years on I wish she would be quiet sometimes as she is very articulate and expresses herself extremely well, still using her hands to describe things! Also she has learnt basic sign in school and has picked it up very well. I am currently using same techniques on 5-month-old baby Lila and already she is picking it up.’ Caroline

‘I started doing the sign for ‘milk’ with my son when he was about 5 months old. He signed it back to me when he was 9 months old. I think it’s a brilliant way of communicating with your baby. I have just started to sign ‘bath’ and ‘sleep’ with him but I’m probably not doing it as consistently as I should so he hasn’t signed any back yet. I would love to go to a class but there are none in my area.’ Suzanne

‘I am doing this with my 18-month-old at the moment because of his unwillingness to talk! But I am not going from any guide, just finding ways he can manage. We only do a few signs, i.e. hand to the mouth for ‘more’, hand on the other hand for ‘biscuit’, and after watching CBeebies this morning, I have a few more to try on him. What we have achieved so far makes him less frustrated, as he understands what I say, and when he signs I repeat it with that item verbally, in the hope he picks up some words to say himself.’ Rachel

‘I’ve been to a course of 4 classes with my baby Caitlin – now 10 months. My 4-year-old, Rebecca, also came along. We learnt lots of basic signs – the lady who taught us is actually profoundly deaf herself and had a signing hearing interpreter there to help. I think its a really great thing to do and I try to do the signs whenever I remember, but it’s just not an instinctive part of my language at present, so Caitlin has yet to sign back to me! My 4-year-old loved it and learnt the signs too. I’m sure, with practice, it will come!! Just got to remember to do them all the time!’ Janet

‘I used baby signing with my daughter, who is now 2, from when she was a couple of months. It worked so well. Before she could talk she was communicating effectively at around 6 months by telling me if she wanted more or by signing a specific drink/food etc. She was using around 50 signs at one year.’ Kelsa

‘I started signing with my daughter when she was about 8 months old. By 9 months she’d picked up the sign for milk and then I gradually introduced others. Things like bird, dog, food etc. There was a stage where she didn’t seem to pick any others up but then all of a sudden she was off. It was fab. I was amazed the first few times she did it. It really does make you feel closer as you understand what they want and they understand more what you are telling them. Friends and family were very cynical at first but once they saw her in action they were amazed! Her verbal communication has always been very good too. Maybe a direct result; who knows? She is now almost 2 years old and she still occasionally uses signs (perhaps wrongly I don’t teach her them anymore) but she does it more to make herself (and me!) laugh. Although she tends to use the sign for chocolate to really stress that she wants some despite my already saying no!’ Andrea

‘We been using baby signing with our daughter since she was 6 months old (she’s now 2.5 years old). We bought the Sing and Sign video and went to two terms of Sing and Sing classes. I am so glad with did as my daughter is one of those children who are slow with their speech. Without being able to sign, life would be very frustrating for her and for us! Some of my family were a bit worried that the signing was slowing down her speech, but all the research I have come across says this isn’t the case and that when a child is slow with their speech you should use gestures and signs to encourage them to communicate. I also noticed that when we went through a period of not showing DD any new signs she then slowed right down with her speaking, but when we started to show her new signs she started to say more words. I am sure that without the signing we would have a unhappy frustrated little girl on our hands. We have even been able to start toilet training with her just using signs.

‘We also have a 13-month-old son and have been signing with him since he was 6 months. In the past month or so he’s started signing back to us, he’s can do about 10 signs now and it’s great to see him so pleased with himself when he has been able to make us understand what he’s “saying”. I would definitely recommend it to others but you do have to be patient and consistent – it takes a good few months for them to get the hang of it but once they do there’s no stopping them :-).’ Suzy