Baby signing: what is it, and should you try it? Jessica Brown and her 11-month-old daughter Alannah put baby signing to the test…
Baby signing appealed to me as I heard it could help me communicate better with my daughter, Alannah, 11 months, and understand her needs more.
Research suggests babies as young as six months can share their basic needs through sign language, letting you know when they’re hungry, need a drink or want their favourite toy. Experts say it can stop babies getting frustrated and help avoid tantrums.
I found a class near my home in Solihull, West Midlands, run by TinyTalk (tinytalk.co.uk, £50 for a 12-week term) and booked two sessions. My husband was sceptical when I told him about babies using sign language, but I had an open mind.
Quite a few babies recognised the hand gestures for bird, butterfly and caterpillar
We started the class with a welcome song, sitting on chairs in a circle, using signs to sing ‘hello’ and the first letter of each baby’s name. We then moved onto the floor to learn a collection of signs for the day’s theme, ‘In The Garden’. Quite a few babies recognised the hand gestures for bird, butterfly and caterpillar. I learned signs for garden, sunshine and hedgehog.
Next we got up on our feet to dance and sing along to I Went To School One Morning, finishing with every baby’s favourite, The Hokey Cokey, including the signs for arms, legs and shaking.
We then sat back on the floor as the teacher, Charlie, began reading from a book, making signs for each animal, the weather and different times of the day.
It was inspiring to see how engaged the babies were
Looking around the class it was inspiring to see how engaged the babies were, seemingly understanding some of the signs and smiling excitedly as their mums repeated them. Normally by this point in other classes most children are more interested in pulling each others shoes/socks off or crawling across the room after spotting something more fascinating.
The lesson finished after 40 minutes and I was offered tea and cakes – always a bonus! The mums sat around chatting about the progress since last week, to a chorus of ‘well done’ and ‘how exciting’ as they proudly revealed what their children had signed for the first time. Some babies who’d been attending for months knew 15 to 20 signs. Newbies were just grasping the basic signs for milk, food and dog.
A mum whose son learned the sign for milk at 11 weeks old told me: ‘He totally understands what he’s asking for and uses it every day now.’ A mum with a 13-month-old said: ‘She knows 12 signs so far, the first she learned was for food, then more and all gone. Now she can tell me when she’s thirsty and in pain, usually pointing to where it hurts too.’
I found the more I encouraged her, the quicker she learned
The teacher advised me to practise basic signs at home with Alannah, saying it may take a few weeks. I found the more I encouraged her, the quicker she learned, and she definitely enjoyed it. Most children start communicating with gestures and sounds between six and 18 months, so this is a great time to start signing. TinyTalk uses simplified signs suitable for babies based on British Sign Language, which are all universal.
The next week I went back for my second lesson and practised with Alannah a lot at home too. Since our second class she’s learned the signs for all gone and where?. She also understands, but hasn’t yet copied, the signs for food and hot. I’m more aware of things she’s trying to say and show me. Before the classes I’d have probably overlooked this, so I feel I have a better understanding of her needs and can respond quicker.
Baby signing is a fun activity which also helps you communicate better with your baby. Just be prepared to spend time practising at home!
5 tips for successful baby signing
- Watch a few YouTube videos before your first class to familiarise yourself with basic signs. It may be also helpful to buy a Baby Signing book – try My First Signs, £4.99, amazon.co.uk.
- Find a class that fits into your baby’s routine, when she’s the most responsive and not tired or hungry.
- Encourage other children and adults who have regular contact with your baby to use the signs too. This will help your little one learn quicker.
- It’s important to speak at the same time as showing the sign, using lots of facial expression and body language.
- You can sign to your baby from birth, but she’ll only sign back around six months. Begin with basic signs, such as for milk and a favourite toy.