REAL DADS: Signing with baby


Words by Anna’s dad, Brian Sharky.

A friend was bringing their baby to baby sign classes and said they’d really helped their daughter become more settled. They thought the classes were great and encouraged us to bring our daughter too. We weren’t sure what to expect or if it would really work, but we went along anyway, thinking it might be a nice way to spend time together.

We brought our daughter Anna to her first class when she was around 6 months or at the crawling stage. I brought her to classes held in a library in the city. She was so small. I remember carrying her in the car seat. She couldn’t say a word of course but it’s the socialising and the singing that kept her entertained and when she was content, we were happy too. I was the only yummy daddy there! We enjoyed it so much, so when that set of classes ended we brought her to another class.

They say young children can understand language long before they speak, and develop dexterity before they can form the sounds to make words, which is quite tough, as positioning of the lips and breathing all have to be just right. Her very first sign was ‘milk’ and then ‘more’.

We were so proud and even a bit weepy. This is a big milestone before walking and talking – not the first communication, like the first smile or the first cry in the delivery room. This was her first intentional communication with us and we felt so lucky to be able to communicate with her more easily.

Even though the first few signs were basic, it felt like we had a great advantage – being able to understand what she wanted or what had upset her. All the effort in making those trips to the sign classes was paid back. Then the flood gates opened; we couldn’t believe how she started to sign colours, numbers, and expressions of emotions.

The type of sign taught in our class was Northern Irish regional BSL.The teacher felt this was the best option as the children could go on to use it when speaking to members of the deaf community.

We attended classes on and off for 3 years. The classes were taught using puppets, songs, and games with bubbles and toy parachutes, followed by tea, coffee and buns, giving us all a chance to socialise afterwards. The same songs were sung but new words were introduced each week and there was a recap over the old ones. The teacher was very expressive and used lots of music and cue cards. We had to learn too and we were encouraged to use signs with words all the time.

I’m in no doubt that signing helped develop Anna’s social skills with other kids and adults. She was eager to interact and volunteer from a young age. I also think this definitely helped to prepare her for big school.

The sign teacher told us that learning sign would mean she would have less tantrums and sometimes when I see other kids getting angry, I realise that Anna doesn’t seem to get angry very often. We’ve always known what she wanted as she could tell us, like – change nappy, more, tired, yes and no, sore throat. The classes have definitely helped. As a family we have benefitted from improved communication. I think the sooner you can have some sort of communication in place, the better.

We introduced our young boy to sign classes when he was a baby and although we weren’t able to attend as many classes with him, we have benefitted from it and Anna got a real thrill being able to sign to her baby brother. Once Anna started speaking, sign fell away but it had served its purpose. She still remembers it. And if she wanted to, I think she could pick it up again.

I remember when Anna was very young we went to our friends’ house one evening for dinner and their young son pulled Anna’s hair while they were playing. She was very upset and inconsolable. Once she calmed down she signed “Car” and “Home”. We had to translate for our friends. It was hilarious but she could tell us what she wanted before she uttered her first word.


(Published in Mums & Tots winter issue 2014/15).

Photo credit: David Castillo Dominici. Freedigital



Categories: Articles, Uncategorized

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6 replies

  1. I did baby signing with my first baby and loved it! The only reason I didn’t do it with my second is because we moved to an area where there weren’t any classes 😦 I really enjoyed the classes, they were great fun. It’s interesting that you were taught Northern Irish BSL as most other classes I’ve heard of teach specific baby signs which are based on Makaton.

    • This piece was written by a father who brought his baby to sign classes – not me. I’m Olivia. Hello! *waves* I have five year-old twins and we did a little sign at home. We live in a very rural location and unfortunately there weren’t (and still aren’t!) any sign classes nearby. Teaching twins to sign by myself turned out to be hugely challenging, but I did manage to teach them a few signs.
      From what I’d heard from sign teachers and what I’d read, makaton is used more to facilitate speech and is not a full language is itself. I know it’s used widely to help children with developmental problems in the UK. A sign teacher I spoke to thought that using a full and useful language will mean that the child can converse with members of their local, deaf community. Thanks for commenting Weronika. 🙂

  2. My oldest has always been a very deliberate person, with perfectionist tendencies. As such, he refused to speak until he could do so in complete sentences. (I believe his first utterance was, “Please pass the potatoes.”) My sister taught him (and us) some basic sign language, which saved everyone a great deal of frustration while he was nonverbal. I’m a huge fan of this practice! Thank you for spreading the word.

    Although we planned to use the same approach when our youngest was born, she began babbling at a very early age and hasn’t stopped since! (She just turned 15.)

    • Hi Jennifer.
      I think I remember you telling me about your son before – that’s fascinating that he built his entire lexicon before he was able to vocalise. I’m fascinated by the fact that babies can communicate this way long before they are able to speak, or if the they are too distressed to talk mid-tantrum. I really regret there were no classes near us, but again it would have been difficult, if not impossible with twins. I think if baby sign can help prevent your baby’s tantrums, it’s a win-win for everyone!
      My two have no problems with speech, well maybe if you consider constantly chatter a problem 🙂

      • We were fortunate that my sister recognized what was going on with him (she worked in early childhood development) and gave us some tools that made things better. Definitely a win-win!

        I have just the one that constantly chatters, and there have been times I felt as though my ears were bleeding. I hope for your sake that your two chat with one another and give you a break once in a while. 😉

      • That’s great that your sister was able to help. I have a family member with training in child development – it’s great to have someone to sound things off when you’re even remotely concerned about something.
        They both chatter a lot to me , each other, the animals, themselves… non-stop talking in this house! (Sometimes I hide in the bathroom) 🙂 I hope you’re well Jennifer.

Penny for your thoughts

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