Whilst speech and language therapists have for years used signs with language delayed children to encourage speech, many parents ask what the benefits are of signing with preverbal infants who are likely to speak soon. Why is it worth the effort of learning signs, and how do they go about it?
What is “baby signing”? Babies use all kinds of signs and gestures as a natural part of learning to talk. Encouraging your baby with extra signs like milk, more, change nappy or tired will help your baby communicate!
Anyone who has seen a signing baby in action quickly realises that it allows babies to express thoughts and needs they would otherwise be unable to communicate, because their spoken language is simply not yet developed enough. As baby grows into a toddler, the second year of life can be one of great frustration for infants and their carers and one of the major causes of tantrums is the toddler’s inability to communicate.
Signing provides a window into the infant’s mind and personality, as they communicate outside of the here and now. This enhances carer-child bonding and facilitates closer relationships, reducing frustration all round.
As babies begin their verbal communication, it is common for the same sound to be applied for several meanings. For example, “ba” could mean bath, ball or even sheep! When the baby can sign alongside the speech sound it allows the carer to recognise what baby is trying to communicate. As infants are often over two before they can construct more complex sentences, many parents observe babies mixing sign and speech to create more complicated requests or observations as skills develop.
Research also demonstrates that signing babies have an increased IQ, tend to be more interested in books (using signing alongside looking at books allows an infant to become an active participant in the story telling), benefit from larger vocabularies and engage in more sophisticated play than non-signing babies.
A common misconception is that signing with your baby will inhibit his or her natural instinct to talk, but signing is not a replacement for talking with your baby; in fact it encourages you to talk more! Extensive research has shown that children become better communicators when their early attempts at communication are understood and they are responded to, not when they are frustrated. Babies love the sound of their own voice, and when they start to sign they will also make attempt at words. Signing also allows your baby to understand you better. You can be very clear about things like No or finished. It takes the guesswork out of sharing your ideas which reduces everyone’s frustration. Signing with your baby also helps establish good eye contact, and it encourages you to slow down your speech and highlight the important part of a sentence. As your toddler starts to use simple two or three word sentences you can use signs to help explore new concepts, such as colours, emotions and even phonics, with them. This will help them to understand and remember these more sophisticated concepts.
Some simple guidelines to follow when signing with your baby:
Always SAY the word – never sign in silence
Keep it simple – one sign per sentence
Accept your baby’s attempt at signs, even approximate imitations of your signs but...
Be consistent in how you show a sign (don’t change to match their attempt)
There are many ways you can get signing with your baby. It’s perfectly possible to make up your own gestures or signs. The sign you use isn’t really important, as long as you use the same sign consistently so that you and your baby know what it means. For many people though it is quite difficult to think up and remember a whole range of signs and they find it easier (and more fun!) to follow an existing programme, either by attending classes or using a DVD or book at home.http://www.singandsign.co.uk/