What is baby signing? And how to get started

By Suzi Chung @singandsign_northherts

Suzi, is a mum of two, and she runs Sing and Sign North Herts, where she teaches baby signing to babies and their families in fun, relaxed music classes.

I remember when I was pregnant with my first, a friend recommended Sing and Sign to me - saying it had been the best thing she’d done with her little one. And so, months later, when my daughter arrived, I dutifully signed us up to my local class. I didn't really know what to expect, to be honest, but we had loads of fun and very quickly I had learnt a handful of signs that we used at home with her every day.

Not immediately but after about a term she started signing back to us! Well, what can I say? What a feeling; being able to have a ‘conversation’ with a pre-verbal 10-month-old!! The weeks went on, and we kept up with the classes, made lots of friends and then came a real flurry of signs (something we call a ‘signing explosion’ which often happens at about the 14-15 month mark). Not only could she tell us what she needed (a nappy change) or wanted (usually more food!) but she could initiate games and show us what she had seen - like a
plane in the sky, or the ducks in the park.

It felt like we had given her the best gift we possibly could have; the tools to communicate with us. For me, this was hugely important as my world was mostly filled with mum guilt, like many new mothers, and to me this felt like a real light in the dark; something I was so proud of and something I felt I had done ‘right’.

Soon my parents knew all the main signs and when her little sister was born, she became the signing champion in our house at age 2! I recall once she was insisting the baby said ‘please’, when she was spoon feeding her a yoghurt, and then impatiently moving her hands for her, so she could feed her the yoghurt and congratulate her with a huge “well done”!

And just a few years later here I am, bringing, what I whole-heartedly describe as the joys of baby signing, to other families. I am a real advocate for making the classes relaxed and fun, and a believer in creating spaces where parents can meet other parents on the same chaotic journey of parenthood. It’s hard work bringing up small humans, so it’s important to me that the classes are light and enjoyable. We teach through music and lots of repetition. We say it’s good for the babies (because it REALLY is!), but the truth is, it's good for ALL of us,
especially on those sleep deprived days!

My top tips on getting started with baby signing

So, how do you get started? I’d say start with a few basic signs that you can use many times in a day, like ‘milk’, ‘more’, ‘all gone’, ‘eat’ and ‘drink’. Try them at mealtimes and see how you go.

We do have a few golden rules to follow;

★ Always say the word as you sign, never sign in silence
★ Just use one sign in a sentence
★ Be consistent
★ Have fun!

And we have very good reasons for these guidelines. When Sing and Sign was created 20+ years ago, it was indeed to support the development of speech and so we mustn’t stop using speech when we sign. What we want to do is add to what our baby is taking in. So, now the baby has the object (or action / feeling) we are referring to, they also hear the words you are saying (the auditory input) AND in addition, you are signing and giving them an extra visual input. All of this helps them to focus on the word and associate it with its meaning.

Sing and Sign uses what is known as ‘key-word signing’ where you sign just one sign in a sentence. Simple! This then ‘forces’ you to choose one word in the sentence to sign. And whilst your brain makes that quick decision, this slows your speech down slightly (GREAT for your baby). Then, when you say the word with the sign, it also tweaks the intonation in your voice, and you’ll find that you have given extra emphasis to the word as you signed it (again GREAT for your baby). Key-word signing also encourages lots of repetition - did I mention that this is GREAT for your baby? When talking about something, let’s use the example of a boat, in normal conversation with a child you might say, “Look at that boat. It’s got green stripes on and there are lots of people on it. Isn’t it going fast?”.

Insert key word signing and notice the difference in your speech pattern; “Look at that boat. The boat has green stripes on. There are lots of people on the boat. Isn’t the boat going fast?” Your child has heard the word 4 times, instead of just once, and each time, they have heard the word boat AND seen the sign for boat! All helping to form lots of synaptic connections in their brains!

Be consistent - what does that mean? Use the signs in the right context at home, make sure you always do the sign the same and if your baby starts signing back to you and they do it “wrong”, just keep signing the way you have been. They probably think they are doing what you’re doing, so don’t change your sign to match theirs.

Have fun! Most important really. Don’t make it a chore, have fun with it. Babies love animals, so have fun making lots of silly animal noises as you sign the animal! If you forget to use your signs one day, don’t worry just pick it back up again. It may take a bit of time getting into the habit of it, but once you do, you’ll probably still be signing when they’re chattering
away to you! I still use the ‘home’ sign when we’re in a soft play and I need to get the kids down from the very top at home time! ;o)

The more people in your baby’s world who get involved the better - if both parents and maybe even siblings/grandparents etc. can learn some of the key signs, this increases the opportunities your baby has to pick up the signs and their meaning! During 2020, Sing and Sign created a wonderful resource that we are still offering today, which is our online @HOME programme. Many parents have told me how wonderful it is that Dad or Mum - who haven't been in classes - have still been able to participate in learning the songs and signs at home and how great it’s been to be involved!

So, how and why does baby signing work?

We’ve all seen babies pointing and waving, haven’t we? Well, they learn this from those around them and they copy what they see. Babies are born with a natural inclination to gesture and an innate want to mimic us. Sing and Sign works on this premise and using a framework of signs that are useful in their routines (change nappy / bedtime / bath time etc) combined with lots of motivating signs (things the babies love, like animals and vehicles), we use music, rhyme, props, pictures and fun, to teach you and your baby the signs.

We have 3 age-specific classes; one for babies under 6 months, one for babies aged 6-14 months, and one for toddlers from 14 months. You can find your local class by visiting www.singandsign.co.uk

I hope you found this useful and for more information on how to get started, check out my video on Instagram @singandsign_northherts.


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