The idea of teaching sign to hearing children was first realised in the 1800s and has been used by speech and language therapists for decades to support children with speech and developmental delays. In recent years it has been recognised that there are immediate and long-term benefits, and positives outcomes for all young children, such as increased IQ and improved literacy skills. A huge proportion of our communication is non-verbal with studies suggesting as much as between 60-90%. Without realising, we communicate so much through hand gestures and young babies and children pick up on these easily before they are able to speak. By taking this a step further and teaching babies to sign, we can help to bridge the gap in communication until their vocal chords have developed and they are able to communicate verbally.
Babies and young children, as we know too well, can become very frustrated when they are unable to express what they want, resulting in frustration and tantrums – an unsettling experience for both the parent and child. When a child has learned a few signs such as ‘more,’ ‘milk’ or ‘nap’ they can easily ask for what they want. Parents can sign to a child ‘what do you want?’ when the child is too frustrated to speak in the hope that the child will be able to sign a response.
In 2000, Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn published their leading research into the effects of baby sign on children’s development and the outcomes observed were altogether positive.
- Larger expressive and receptive spoken language vocabularies
- More advanced mental development
- A reduction in problematic behaviours like tantrums resulting from frustration
- Improved parent-child relationships
WHERE TO START
When considering a baby sign class, ask what type of sign they will be teaching. In Ireland they may use Irish Sign Language (ISL) or British sign language (BSL). In Northern Ireland they may use Northern Ireland regional BSL. Like any spoken language, sign language, too, has its regional variations, so it is probably best to learn whatever is used in your locality.
You can begin teaching your baby sign language as early as 6 months old, however members of the deaf community may suggest this can be done earlier as they do not wait this long until they begin to sign with their babies.
Try to bear in mind that they won’t be able to make their first sign for at least another two months and as every child is different, it may take longer for some children. Signs need to be used consistently and in the correct context while saying the word at the same time. E.g. do the sign for milk while asking the question ‘would you like some milk?’
Start slowly and begin signing with a few signs at home, maybe 3 or 4 and as the child masters them, introduce a few more. It may be frustrating when the child appears to take a long time to make the signs, but remember they will understand the signs (not the words) for a while before they can make them. This will work in their favour at times when they are upset and you may ask and sign ‘milk’. They may settle right away, understanding that their milk is on its way. As a parent teaching the signs, you will need to be one step ahead and have learned a couple of signs before you are ready to introduce them to your baby.
You can start teaching your baby sign at home. A few great and simple signs which will help to make life easier are ‘all done’ ‘more’, ‘milk’ and ‘eat’. ‘All done’ is made by holding up both hands and flipping them back and forth to show that they are empty. The sign for ‘milk’ is probably the best sign to use first with your baby and is made by squeezing your fingers together like you are milking a cow. ‘Eat’ is a great sign to use with your baby to see if they are hungry and can be made by simply putting your fingers to your lips to mimic eating a piece of food. The sign for more is great for asking if your child wants more food and is made by holding your hands out in front and bringing all the finger tips together.
Dancing with words: Signing for Hearing children’s literacy (2000) by Marilyn Daniels.
www.signforfun.ie – For classes in Irish sign language
www.tinytalk.co.uk – For classes in Galway
Published and written for Mums & Tots magazine, Winter issue 2014/15
Photo by photostock. Image ID: 10033706. freedigitalphotos.net