Learning to sign is without doubt the single most powerful and joy-bringing thing we’ve done with Finn. Even now that he is nearly two and communicating pretty effectively in spoken language (I think in no small part because of the signing), signs still come in useful and I still notice the impact signing has had on our communication as a family.
I learnt about baby signing from a friend who has used it with all three of her children. Until we tried it ourselves, I was somewhat skeptical that we’d be able to communicate as well as she described with such a young child. I also wondered whether signing was really necessary or a good use of time: perhaps instinctive parent-child communication and emerging spoken language would be enough. However, I love learning new languages and the idea that Finn could have a bilingual experience really appealed to me, even if it turned out we didn’t ‘need’ the signs. I’d also seen Makaton (which baby signing is based on) used by teachers and students of special schools and knew how powerful ‘sign supported speech’ (where you sign and say a word at the same time) could be.
At first I borrowed the only signing book I could find at my local library, which was based on American Sign Language. We started using a few signs (milk, eat, more, sleep) with Finn when he was about 4 months old. As with Makaton and baby signing, we said the word alongside the sign. For quite a while this was just us signing, with no signed response, although I felt that using the sign alongside the spoken word helped Finn to process what I was saying.
By 6 months, when he was starting to eat solid foods, Finn also started using his first signs: ‘milk’ and ‘eat’. These were very useful to help me know whether he wanted solid food or to breastfeed, and I’m sure this prevented a lot of frustrated crying. Finn also started to use the signs for things he really loved – signing ‘star’ and ‘tree’ at around 6 months and soon adding other favourite interests like ‘bird’.
Even in months 6-9 when he only used a few signs himself, Finn gained independence from them. We started to move from us adults talking at him about the world around us, to him being able to initiate communication – telling us what he noticed, what he wanted. Several times he signed ‘bird’ because his sharp eyes had found a bird somewhere high up in a tree, which I had to search for: the power balance had shifted. He would tell me if he wanted ‘more’ of something, or if he was ‘finished’, giving him more control over his day.
It did take a lot of persistence, especially at first: sometimes Finn would learn a sign but not use it until months later, whereas we had to be careful to use the sign every time we said the word. Once he started to sign back, though, it was an incentive to us to keep going.
When he was 7 months old we did a term of ‘Sing and Sign ’ baby signing run by Sukie in Bow, which boosted our signing vocabulary; we found the classes and the songs enjoyable and they were a good way of practising and including more of the family in learning a basic signing vocabulary.
By 10 months old, when Finn could say a few spoken words, all of them indistinct, he had a big vocabulary of signs and could put them together into simple phrases. He signed ‘Happy Christmas’ to people, excitedly pointed out ‘Christmas trees’ and Christmas lights’, asked for ‘more toast please’ or ‘where is x?’ and said ‘thank you’ as well as ‘goodbye’.
After that, his signing really exploded and between 11-18 months became a really flexible tool for communication. By the time Finn started nursery at 11 months he was able to sign if he was in pain, where the pain was, what exactly he wanted to eat or drink, whether he was tired or wanted to go to the park, listen to music, or read a story – and sometimes, which story or song he wanted. He watched ‘Something Special’, the Makaton children’s TV show, with his dad on their Friday together each week and they learnt a whole new range of signs that they then taught me.
By 18 months Finn had quite a lot of spoken words but was using the signing alongside, so that we were able to understand his sometimes indistinct words because the signs were clear.
You sometimes hear the myth that teaching a baby to sign could delay spoken language development. I’d say the opposite was true, certainly for us.
For us, signing unlocked language very early and showed us that our baby could understand what we were saying – he just didn’t have the fine motor control to form spoken words yet. This helped us respect him as a communicator and on countless occasions reminded us he could understand perfectly well what we were saying and had his own opinions: I’m sure we talked less ‘over his head’ in his presence as a result. His communication with his dad in particular was strengthened from an early age: I had the instinctive bond of breastfeeding and the luxury of having had 10 months full time with him; without the signing, he and his dad might not have communicated as well, as early. It also strengthened all of our emotional bonds: as well as being able to say ‘I love you’, Finn began to be able to tell us why he was feeling sad (‘Want more tents!’ he told me one day when we were back home after a camping weekend and I asked him why he was crying). He was even able to make jokes using the signs, and then tell us he was joking! He would sign to himself while playing, in the same way that he babbled speech sounds.
One possible effect of the signing was that when Finn started at nursery he was frustrated at the lack of communication, because the nursery staff did not use baby signing. I taught them a few signs – and so did my son – but the turnover of staff meant that he never had the same level of communication he did at home, and I still wonder if that contributed to his difficulty settling in at nursery.
Signing has gone on being vital throughout his speech development so far: I’m sure it has prevented a lot of frustrated tantrums (from all of us, not just him!) in his second year, as our communication has been generally swift and easy. When his spoken language was often indistinct, we’d ask if he could sign the word he was saying, and it usually cleared up any confusion. Signing has helped give him the confidence that he can be understood if he persists with language, and even if he doesn’t always get what he’s asking for, he gets an explanation.
We all still use signing as a powerful resource. I use signs alongside the words for ‘wait’, ‘share’, ‘stop’ and ‘later’ to emphasise these ideas if I have to get them across fast or Finn is too upset to talk, and they help us both to stay calm. Equally, if he can’t get something across to me in spoken language or wants to emphasise it, my son still signs. The other day he wanted me to notice a small, partly-hidden detail in a picture in one of his books and kept saying, ‘where’s the moh-board?’ which I didn’t understand, so I asked him to say it again and he said ‘moh-board’ and signed ‘piano’, then looked at me and said ‘moh-board – piano?’, so I taught him how to say ‘keyboard’. I’d never have worked it out otherwise AND the sign showed me he had connected the two words conceptually.
Finn still signs if he’s really excited – for example signing ‘music’ if he hears music he loves; or signing ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ alongside the word when he really means it!
When Finn learns a new spoken word now, he repeats it out loud AND creates a sign for it, because his assumption is that all words have signs: in that sense, he is truly bilingual. His made-up signs give us an insight into how he sees the world.
Now we’re expecting our second child, we’re looking forward to signing with him too: and in particular, to supporting our older child to sign with his brother. I hope that the ability to communicate early on will help the two of them to bond as siblings and give our eldest a sense of pride in teaching ‘his’ language to Little Baby.