The power of signing

Barnaby as a baby

Barnaby as a newborn babyOur son Barnaby was born in January 2017. We knew when I was pregnant that our baby had Down’s syndrome so we had a bit of time to adjust to the news and learn about what lay ahead for us. We met with various people who gave us advice for the early weeks and months which was really helpful and reassuring.

We learned that our baby was likely to have a global development delay, meaning they would take a little longer to reach certain milestones like walking and talking. Everyone we spoke to mentioned Makaton, but we knew very little about using signing with a baby and how it might help. Our daughter Martha, who is two years older than Barnaby, had been to baby sign classes, but as she was a pretty early talker it never really became part of our way of communicating.

Barnaby as a baby, wearing a party hat Having picked up a few Makaton signs from various groups and watching Mr Tumble, we started using some signs with Barnaby when he was about 6 or 7 months old.

We started with just a few basic ones which might help him communicate his needs; ‘hello’, ‘more’, ‘food’ and ‘milk’. To start with Barnaby mostly used gestures rather than sign – pointing to things and nodding and smiling.

By the time Barnaby was about 15 months, he had started to copy us and was doing the sign for ‘more’ and ‘milk’ if we modelled it for him. Very gradually this progressed to him doing the signs in response to a verbal cue and then when he was about 18 months old, he would request his milk unprompted. This was a wonderful breakthrough and I can’t imagine how fantastic it must have felt for Barnaby when he was able to ask for something and have his needs met.

As Barnaby’s signing vocabulary expanded to some animals as well as ‘food’, ‘no’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ he then had another breakthrough when he was about 22 months. He looked at me and signed ‘more’ followed by ‘food’. This was the start of a 24 hour binge where I had to reward him with a snack every time he made the request!!!

Our next breakthrough moment was just before Barnaby turned two. We had done bath time rather late and my husband and I were keen to get Barnaby and his sister into bed, so instead of all having a book together I said to my husband, let’s just pop Barnaby into bed now. Barnaby looked at me and did the sign for ‘book’. It was such a special moment – to think that he knew his routine and wasn’t going to let us get away with skipping his special reading time.

I often use this example when telling people how powerful signing is. If Barnaby had not had the ability to communicate with us using Makaton he wouldn’t have been able to ask his Mummy for a book for the last nine months!

My favourite signing moment with Barnaby though was when we had our annual appointment with his neurodevelopmental paediatrician just after he turned two. She had given him a toy car to play with on the floor. He crawled over to her, wedged the car behind her bottom then looked up at her and signed ‘where’ and ‘car’! After we both stopped giggling she concluded there was no problem with Barnaby’s communication – or his sense of humour!

Barnaby as a baby, with his familyAbout six months ago a friend was sitting with Barnaby and he was signing something to her which she couldn’t understand. She said she’d love to have a way to learn some signs, especially so she could teach her daughter as Barnaby would be joining her at nursery a few months later. I reflected on this and realised that it would be helpful for all Barnaby’s little friends and our immediate family to have a way of learning some key signs. And so the next day Barnaby and I started a little instragram account (called @signwithbumblebee) to demonstrate Makaton signs.

We try and post a sign every day if we can, and love to take requests from our followers. As well as helping our friends and family it has been the most brilliant way for Barnaby and I to expand our Makaton vocabulary. Even in the few months we’ve been doing this both of us have learned so much and I can’t get over how many new signs Barnaby has picked up.

Many of them he is now using completely spontaneously and just today he surprised me by looking at me and doing the sign for ‘outside’ as he wanted to play in the garden. The first thing he signs when I go into his bedroom in the morning is ‘Daddy’ and he regularly does the sign for ‘ice cream’ when I ask him what he wants for breakfast! Barnaby loves music and one of his favourite activities is signing along to songs and nursery rhymes.

Barnaby as a toddlerBecause Barnaby’s speech is significantly delayed (he currently has about 4 or 5 actual words), it is so powerful for him to be able to sign. His vocabulary has expanded enormously since he turned two and he probably knows in excess of 60 signs now. He is also regularly using two signs together such as ‘where’s Martha’, ‘dog sleep’ and ‘mummy eat’.

As we go about our day he is able to react to the world around him and is always pointing things out to Mummy e.g. ‘bird’, ‘car’, ‘dog’. In addition he anticipates his routine and lets me know when it is bath time or bed time.

As Barnaby is nearly three we’re now starting to get quite a bit of help from speech and language professionals to encourage his speech and it is through this I’m really seeing how beneficial it is for Barnaby to have amassed such an extensive vocabulary through signing. Recognising objects, being able to remember them and having a sign for them means that when he is able to start making the sounds and associating them with the correct objects or actions it will be so much easier for his words to literally fall into place.

If he didn’t have that signing structure and background it would be an awful lot more difficult for him to make that leap. And for this reason it is so important that Barnaby continues to sign even when the words start coming as it provides the most wonderful scaffolding and structure for his speech.

Barnaby dressed smartlyWe all continue to learn every day and to appreciate the power of signing.

My favourite example of how special signing can be is the sign for ‘sorry’. For this sign you make a fist with your dominant hand and rub it on your heart. Barnaby often gets a bit mixed up with signs that involve touching the body, so if you ask him to say sorry he’ll rub his fist on the other person’s heart instead of his own. If that isn’t special enough, since learning this sign Barnaby’s big sister Martha often prefers to sign ‘sorry’ than say the word out loud despite the fact she’s more than capable of doing so. As we all know saying sorry is never easy, so having a gentler, non-verbal way of conveying it can make it just a little less difficult.

I cannot encourage the use of Makaton enough. It has literally given Barnaby a voice; not just to ask for things he wants, but to comment on the world around him, tell me what he’s thinking and to express his personality and sense of humour. Teaching your child Makaton is a wonderful experience and there is no doubt it helps strengthen the bond between you. It is a very intimate way of communicating as you have to be looking at one another. We don’t know when Barnaby will start talking, but I have no doubt Makaton will help him get there quicker and allow him to be better at it when he does.