Communicating with your baby in the early days can be quite a challenge. Until you get to know the different pitches in her cry, chances are they will all sound rather similar to each other. But as you grow to understand more about your baby’s character, and the things that she likes and dislikes, so you will grow to recognise the different cries she has too. Babies use their voices to let you know their needs- and it won’t be long before you’re able to decipher that ‘change my nappy’ cry from ‘give me a cuddle’! Using your ears and your eyes to pick up signs from your baby is a natural instinct and so it makes sense that we parents have for centuries been seeking for new ways to further communicate with our babies. Before babies can talk, communication is mainly done through body language, facial expressions and gestures. Which makes baby signing such a wonderfully natural progression on the journey towards connecting with and understanding your child. If you’d like to know more, read on.
What is baby signing?
In the simplest of terms, baby signing is a form of pre-verbal communication that allows you to ‘speak’ to your baby using a variation of hand movements. But much more than that, it is a wonderful way to form new bonds with your baby, to introduce them to new sensory experiences, and to build their language and communication skills. It helps to build confidence and ease baby’s frustration at being unable to articulate wants and needs verbally- and it can be such a fabulous learning experience for both parent and child. Imagine delving deeper into your baby’s active mind and being able to understand just a little bit more about her personality and her thoughts? Amazing!
How does baby signing work?
You will have already noticed that your baby cannot speak using words, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have plenty to say. In the same way that you are able to distinguish between her different cries, baby signing means that you are able to further the lines of communication with your baby- and by helping your baby to find new ways to communicate, you are opening up new worlds for exploration. Using hand gestures alongside words, baby signing will help to develop gross and fine motor skills and will actually aid verbal communication too.
Parents who sign use a variety of gestures when they talk to their baby, and very soon these gestures become familiar patterns. Key signs such as ‘milk’ ‘yes’ and ‘no’ can be understood and eventually copied by your baby, so that communication is two-way a lot more quickly. This can mean that you are able to hold a conversation with your baby a lot earlier than most non signing parents. For your baby to be able to sign ‘milk’ when she is hungry is an amazing feat!
Baby signing is intended to enhance, not replace, verbal communication so it’s important to always say the word that you are signing too. And repetition is the key here, so that your baby comes to expect the sign and the word each and every time it is used in a sentence. Just as babies are able to recognise patterns and rhythms in their favourite songs, signs become learned and they are able to expect certain words and actions at certain times. So every time you are getting ready to feed your baby, tell her- and use the sign too. This way, she knows she is about to have some milk and the sign that goes with it too.
There is no evidence that suggest a baby who signs has delayed speech as a result- in fact lots of babies who are able to sign with parents and carers often go on to talk a lot earlier than those who don’t. The reasons for this include a heightened self confidence that comes from being able to communicate already, and the fact that your baby has been studying your face and your gestures as you speak to her. Your baby has also been hearing keywords over and over and has been the rapt audience of your songs, rhymes and conversation for a long time. Speaking is a natural progression in this journey. Remember that we use gestures all the time while we’re talking, so baby signing is really just a more conscious effort of ensuring we are clear in what we’re saying in order to extend communication as much as possible.
If you’re keen to get started with baby signing, there is no time like the present! Babies are fast learners so don’t worry that you’ve left it too late. Find a local class, or look online for guidance. It really does help to have others to help you master the gestures, and to answer any questions you may have. Lots of classes will teach you little songs, the origins of various signs, and lots about the ways in which babies communicate. This can also be a wonderful way to meet other like minded parents too.
If you can’t get to a class, and you’re unable to find a book or website to help you, don’t despair! Lots of signs can be adapted for your own personal use and often signers will develop new gestures that they use with their baby to represent a certain word, name or phrase. Any gesture that mimics the word is good and as long as you are consistent (don’t change the gesture at will!) and accompany it with the verbal word, that’s fine. If you do want to learn a formal sign language though, classes really are your best bet.
If you have older siblings at home, it’s a great idea to get them involved in the signing too. Agree signs that suit their names, and use them when you address those children, or when you talk to your baby about them. Ask your family to also be consistent with the signing, and explain your reasons why you feel it is important. Many children will find signing great fun, and will enjoy learning new songs, phrases and words too- and this in turn will help them to bond with the baby too.
Keep it up
Once you start baby signing, keep going with it as long as you like. There is no need to stop once your baby is able to talk, and often the toddler years are the most rewarding as far as being able to communicate effectively goes. Toddlers quickly become frustrated when their developing speech does not allow them to communicate their feelings succinctly- if you equip them with a skill such as baby signing, they have an additional tool to use which could help them to relay their thoughts a lot better. I have seen parents with children over the age of 4 that are still singing to each other periodically, and this is wonderful. Used alongside verbal communication, signing opens up a whole new world of language and also helps children to understand more about hearing and speech difficulties too.
If your child does have a hearing difficulty, it’s a good idea to learn a formal sign language and encourage the whole family to learn it too. Communication is essential in any family and more so when there are hearing issues. Speak to your health visitor about resources that may be available to you.