Baby signing is for any child
Our eldest son, Joseph, was born in 1999. It was when he was around 6 months old that I first encountered and learnt about baby signing. I vividly recall being in my kitchen, standing at the counter as I prepared his lunch watching him as he sat in his highchair and talking to him throughout. But something was different. This was the first time I saw him frustrated. As I made lunch, I talked away to him (as usual) but he was getting quite agitated, becoming more and more frustrated which was so unusual for him. Normally he would be happily playing and watching me whilst I prepared our lunch. A number of things were going through my head, “was he starving and just couldn’t wait?”, “was he thirsty?”, “did he want something different to eat?”, “did he want a toy?”, “did he need a nappy change?”, “was he too hot? or too cold?”, “did he have a pain?”, “was he ill?”…
I talked. He got more frustrated. I then started picking things up to show him so I could see his reaction. “Are you thirsty?” as I held his bottle. “Are you hungry?” as I held a banana, then showing him his teddy and toy car it was obvious didn't want either neither... I repeatedly asked, “What do you want?”, and he repeatedly pointed elsewhere making frustrated babbling noises. It was obvious that he wanted something, but I simply did not know what and could not work it out. I couldn’t see quite what he was pointing at and did not understand his babbling. It was frustrating for us both. In the end I gave up, took him out of his highchair, put him in his pushchair and we went for a long walk.
I just didn't understand what he was trying to communicate, it saddened me as I had snapped and said, ‘Just talk to me!’ which was unrealistic expecting him to be able to talk at his age. I mulled it all over in my mind as I pushed his buggy. I had previously read an article on baby signing and decided to explore further when I got home. Research I did and yes it confirmed signing was a fantastic way to communicate early with babies before they developed speech. Joseph didn’t have a learning difficulty; in fact he was the opposite (as we later found out that he was gifted and talented). At the time we did not know this, I was a new mum and simply wanted to try signing with him so that we could communicate. It made sense, so I bought a book, learnt a few basic signs, “eat”, “banana”, “milk”, “drink” and eagerly started. As the months past we incorporated signing into our routine and had fun together. Joseph started to talk, our need to use sign language dwindled so quickly phased out of our lives as his speech was rapidly developing. I gave the signing book to a friend who was intrigued by learning more about baby signing as at the time it was a relatively new concept. Remember this was over 20 years ago.
I didn't think about baby signing until five years later. We knew William our younger son had Down syndrome before he was born. Knowing this allowed us to do a bit of background reading before he arrived. A friend pushed a flyer through my door about a conference organised by our local Down syndrome parent support group. We registered for the event when I was pregnant and attended it when William was just 3 months old. Signing was on the agenda, and it brought back a few memories, so I was quite keen to start again from scratch with both my boys. This time with an older sibling to try things out on was a bonus!
The message was clear. Research showed that children with Down syndrome benefit from a signing environment and that using sign does not delay speech development. Engaging in any form of communication and language will help with brain development. Both professionals and parents we met endorsed this from their experience with their own children. We learned that speech development varies from child to child and as spoken words develop, children start to replace signing with spoken words and transitions from sign to speech. “Couldn't be easier“, I thought at the time, but second time round would turn out to be a very different experience for me as I wasn’t using it to support communication with an able gifted and talented child but with one who had a learning difficulty and complex needs.
William started his early intervention program around 4 months. He was in and out of hospital has had several operations. We started to have input from his Speech Therapist and his Portage worker as well as his Physio once settled at home. William was then diagnosed with a severe hearing impairment, so we met his Teacher of the Deaf who directed us again to Makaton. William got his first pair of hearing aids to wear which we knew from his reaction to sounds worked. He wasn’t hearing much if at all without them. He wore them daily and the message from everyone was the same “Learn to sign and start signing to him now. It’s best if everyone in the family learned to sign. Don’t give up as he will take longer to sign back to you”.
You can read about how William progressed with learning to signing as a baby and as he grew up to be a teenager in Part 3 .
Beverley Dean MBE, Founder of Special iApps C.I.C.