Baby signing

I have signed with all four children and I believe it is a very useful tool to aid communication between children and adults, and to lessen frustration due to lack of understanding. I first learned about baby signing while working at the Science Museum in London, before I had any children myself. A colleague in the Education Department had watched a TV documentary and was very impressed by the idea. He particularly mentioned a baby telling an adult that there was a wasp in the car, by signing.

I started off with Pokemon Boy, just with a Sing and Sign DVD and the Acredolo and Goodwyn book Baby Signs. Pokemon Boy went into childcare at about 8 months old and it wasn’t long before his carers had noticed the signs that he made and were asking me about them. I was happy that the carers wanted to know more, and I kept them informed about the signs that Pokemon Boy was using. At about 12 months old he was using signs to tell me if he was hungry or thirsty, or if he could see an animal or a vehicle that he was excited about. It was lovely to share in his excitement about what he saw around him, and to avoid tantrums because I hadn’t realised what he needed. (The tantrums came later on, but at least they tended not to be about basic needs.)

Many people do not understand that baby signing is intended for hearing babies, not deaf children, and they worry that introducing babies to sign language will delay development of their spoken language. There have been limited studies into this area, but it is my understanding that they show no language delay arising from introducing sign language at an early age. We always say the word clearly as well as signing it, and we do not sign a whole sentence, focussing instead on the key words.

Pokemon Boy’s spoken language developed just as fast or perhaps faster than you would expect with any hearing child. He used signs and spoken words together for a while and then dropped the signs as his acquisition of spoken words accelerated.

By the time Drama King was born, I had a choice of several baby signing classes to attend in our local area. I tried Tiny Talk UK, from about 6 months old, but was put off by huge class sizes and a teacher who couldn’t sing in tune. Instead I went to Sing and Sign classes and, not only did Drama King pick up the signs very quickly, Pokemon Boy also came along and it was lovely to see him remembering the signs he had used as a baby.

I liked the fun songs, the social aspect for both myself and my son, and the way the classes covered areas of interest to the child (such as food, animals or vehicles) as well as practical signs such as ‘potty’ or ‘bathtime’ or ‘bedtime’. With signs you can also cover abstract concepts such as feelings, and I think it is great that such little children can find a way to communicate how they are feeling without resorting to squeals or moans, that are so often misinterpreted.

Drama King’s acquisition of signed and spoken language was very fast and he was speaking in long sentences with clauses before 18 months. My sister and I would laugh about what a chatterbox he was – something that has not changed yet!

Reptile Boy and I attended signing classes with the same teacher who had taught Drama King. He and I loved the classes. Reptile Boy was very shy of signing in the classes, but he signed a great deal at home. The surprise was that he hardly spoke any words. Even at about 20 months old you could probably count his spoken words on the fingers of your hands. I worried about this for a while, especially after a friend of mine (whose son had Asperger’s Syndrome) suggested I should take Drama King to a specialist. However, we had no other concerns about his development, and it was clear that he understood everything we said to him. I was very reassured to read a book by Thomas Sowell called ‘The Einstein Syndrome’ about a small subset of children whose intelligence is above the norm but whose spoken language is very delayed. Not that I am suggesting that my child is highly gifted (and I have my doubts about that label anyway) but it was good to learn that asynchronous development need not be a cause for concern.

Drama King attended the creche at my nearby sports centre, where the staff were keen to use baby signing with him, and his childminder was also interested, so his signing provided a clear way of communicating with the adults around him. At around his second birthday, he had a language explosion and by 2 1/2 he was speaking so well that people here in Australia commented how advanced his speech was.

When Princess was a few months old I looked around for signing classes but found it was not as popular here in Australia as it is in the US, and had been in the UK. I knew someone else on the Sydney Attachment Parenting (SAP) list was also interested, so I offered to teach classes in my apartment. As of November 2012, we have been running for about nine months and we have a small core group who have all found baby signing very useful with their children. Interestingly, Princess’s acquisition and usage of the signs has not been as fast as her older brothers or her peers in the group, and although at 8 months old I thought she had started to say words, she now seems to be following in the footsteps of Drama King. But I am not worried. We know how to communicate with her, and she communicates with us very well. And we are all having lots of fun singing songs and talking about things that are important in her life and the lives of her little friends.

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