Hand on heart
MY sons, who are nine and seven, are always keen to experiment. They especially like to calibrate wall-to-floor ratios and crash-test footballs. So when we were asked to try teaching their baby brother sign language, they embraced the idea: they already embrace him so much that he doesn’t realise he hasn’t yet reached his teens.
Although sign language is normally associated with those who are deaf or have hearing difficulties, babies can use sign language as a way of communicating before being able to speak.
At 13 months, when we started, our little boy was fond of his soother and his vocabulary consisted of “Mama” (translation: person, or dog, bigger than me) and “Ahubbadeyaya” (translation: I want that; I don’t want that; I like that; I hate that).
In this house, board books are treated as toys; they’re another thing for a baby to play with and to chew, so we put SuperHands into the box. Written by Miriam Devitt using Irish Sign Language (ISL), it is a sturdy illustrated dictionary of 40 signs with tips, facts, rhymes and the ISL alphabet.
Baby signing is a happy game, she says, and, like everything that involves one-on-one communication, with eye contact, repetition, close contact and concentration, it helps babies bond with the people who care for them.
It can also help children with delayed speech and children with hearing or learning difficulties who get frustrated when trying to speak.
It was developed during the 1980s by researchers in the US who observed how well the children of deaf parents could communicate.
According to Devitt, babies can engage in meaningful communication from three months. A baby of seven months will give feedback more quickly; from a year, as their fine motor skills develop, they start to copy adults, and when siblings find them more interesting company and more responsive, they tend to get involved too.
As with every type of learning, practice and consistency are needed to make it work: now that the novelty has worn off our signing is sporadic but at 19 months, thanks mostly to the eldest boy’s efforts, some signs endure. “Nice eating?” I ask, moving my bunched hand to and from my mouth.
Baby Boy nods purposefully and fires his bowl across the table. “Uh-oh,” he says. Then, triumphantly, he makes the “all gone” sign. Making the sign for “dirty”, I slide my index finger down my nose and, as he copies me, I attack his mucky nose with a tissue. At bedtime, after stories, I open and close my hand and say “time for milk”, and he snuggles in, unplugging the soother. After the milk I say, “time to sleep,” and we make the sleep sign. “Ya,” he says, with a sage nod.
A few months on, now that he is nearly two, things are making sense to him. One busy morning last week, before his usual nap time, he pulled SuperHands out of his book box in the kitchen, plonked it on my lap, pointed to the sleep illustration and made the correct sign: he was asleep within minutes of settling in the cot.
He is also developing a firm tone in his chatter, which has improved in the month since he chose to remove the soother and so, instead of yelling “Goggy” when he knows the dog is foraging around the high chair, he tells her firmly to “Gehdown”. We bypassed the sign for that.
Six-week courses in baby signing are starting around the State this month; for more information see superhands.ie, email email@example.com or tel. 086-8223165
SIGNING WITH A SONG
Another fun way to get babies communicating with you before they can speak is the popular British signing programme ‘Sing and Sign’.
Developed with the help of speech and language experts, signing is taught through specially written songs which help babies learn more than 80 signs for words and phrases such as “milk”, “more”, “change nappy” and “tired”.
Little people love the DVDs which include classic tunes such as I Think I Need The Potty sung with great gusto in a playgroup setting by Sing and Sign founder Sasha Felix.
It may only be September but I should also mention that there’s a Christmas version of the Sing & Sign DVD for all your seasonal baby signing needs. Singandsign.com