Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Using sign language with your baby

In August 2014, the Yahoo Contributor Network was shut down. All the copyrights to articles thereon were returned to their authors, so I decided to publish certain articles of mine, originally written for Yahoo UK on my own blogs. This is one of them.

Every mother knows that babies don't communicate by crying. Crying is what they do when they become frustrated that they are not being responded to. Babies communicate through body language, right from the very start. When we know our babies well enough, we read their subtle gestures, and we understand what they need.
For me, learning to sign with my babies was the obvious next step. At a certain age, babies start to mimic our gestures to communicate with us; they learn to hold their arms up for a cuddle, or to wave back when we are saying goodbye, why not extend this to improve the communication between my child and his caregivers?
I began baby signing at a local class that combined signing with singing a combination of popular nursery rhymes and songs adapted to use the most common signs. It was one of those slightly awkward gatherings of sleep deprived mothers bewilderedly singing to their disinterested and slightly confused charges.
Enthused by the endorsements of other mothers, I sought out the Makaton Society (Makaton is the simplified sign language used in baby signing or with children and adults with speech and language difficulties), and used their resources to learn more. At home the lessons really started to work. My son started using his favourite signs to let us know what he needed. His first and favourite sign was "milk"; but "more", "again", "sleep", "thank you" and a variety of animals featured too.
He continued to do sign until he could talk, after that he only used his absolute favourites, like "fish" alongside the words.
Tips for using sign language with your baby

Start early. Babies as young as 8 months can use simple signs.
Be consistent. Always use the signs with the words, whenever the right context arises. Your baby will learn to associate the sign with your words and actions, but they need to see it frequently.
Make your signs clear. Always sign in the same way and make sure your baby sees it.
Always respond to your baby's signs. They will start out a bit indistinct, so watch out for them. If you are not sure if they used a sign or not, reflect it back to them: "Did you say you wanted some milk?" and give the correct sign. Get all their caregivers on board. It really helps if everyone that looks after your baby signs with them. Many nurseries use signing as a matter of course, and it's worth looking for one where they will use and pay attention to baby signing. 

Pre-schoolers thrive when their caregivers are responsive to their needs; if your child can communicate their needs with signs, it makes sense to make sure they are looked after by people who will understand. Make sure your childcare professionals are aware of your child's signing idiosyncrasies. My eldest son often made the sign for milk with one hand, above his head - he was reaching up to make sure the adults could see it. One day I picked him up from nursery and he started signing wildly at me. His key worker asked what it was, he had been doing it all afternoon. Although the staff were trained in Makaton (the simplified sign language used in baby signing), they failed to recognise his take on the sign.
Signing made an enormously positive impact on my relationship with my children. It was very clear to me that they understood more than they were able to express, and signing allowed them to share their needs and interest with us, long before they were able to speak. Even if a baby only learns a couple of signs, it is well worth trying.

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