Our 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.
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
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!
About 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
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
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
Because 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.
We 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