Communicating with your brand new baby is a challenge; understanding their needs and wants is not as simple as we would wish. Finding a way to understand little ones can be rewarding, fun and will help with their confidence and other important skills. Nikki Jamieson tells us about her journey with British Sign Language, the benefits and why you should embark on it too.
I’m Nikki, and I began my signing journey six years ago. At the time, like many new parents, I was looking for a group or an activity that would help me to bond with my baby. I came across baby sign language classes and loved the sound of this as a way to communicate with my little one. Little did we know that just four weeks after birth, our little boy would be confirmed as deaf.
We were eager to understand all we could talk about the deaf community and started learning British sign language with gusto; we could not have known the incredible experiences sign language would offer us. By the time my son was 18 months old, he had learned over 250 signs and, remarkably, could communicate his wants and needs with us better than any of his hearing peers.
The ability to communicate not only reduces frustration for both babies and parents/carers but also helps young children with language development, confidence, concentration, coordination, memory and increases their understanding of the world around them. Nothing can prepare you for the magic that comes with this early form of communication – the connection, the bond and that special moment when your little person signs ‘mummy’.
Since my son was born, I’ve worked with dozens of families who have children with hearing problems, verbal delays, or deaf or autistic children. All have embraced and fallen in love with this language as much as I have, children and adults alike, and the benefits have been enormous, and I’ll tell you why.
Starting your journey.
You can begin signing with your little one from birth, but as many major developmental changes are happening in these early weeks, you’ll gain the most benefit after five months as this is when their little brains can start to fully see and process the signs you’re using (it’s never too late to start though!).
Teaching sign language can feel daunting and a bit overwhelming at first, especially when children are very young. However, once you’ve taken that first step, it does get much easier. I would recommend only starting with a few signs at first, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly babies and children absorb signs and start picking up this fantastic communication tool.
Initially, I’d focus on the key signs, which are words such as milk, mummy, more, bath etc. These signs are easy to teach, and if for some reason your sign language learning goes no further, at least these few signs will help your child to be understood when it comes to key needs.
All parents can find this first stage quite difficult as the emphasis and pressure is all on them. Beware of any classes that claim they can teach your baby to sign, as they’re making false promises. It’s the parents that are absolutely key to the child’s success as signs need to be used consistently and in context with the child’s surroundings and environment; for example, the baby needs to see the bath when you’re signing ‘bath’. The first stage takes time and patience, but it’s so rewarding when you see your child starting to communicate with you.
Stages of sign language.
The brain has to go through several stages before your little one is able to absorb the signs shown to them and display amusement or emotion at hand movements. Recognition will come with repetition of regular movement from the parent, and eventually, that will lead to imitation and the first sign. As sign vocabulary increases, you’ll start to see a flurry of signs – sometimes with several new signs happening all at once. Personally, I always enjoy watching the recognition and imitation as little faces start to connect that this is language, that this is something that they can do.
Benefits including early speech development
It’s a standard and outdated view that sign language can delay speech; this is absolutely untrue! When teaching a hearing child to use sign language to communicate, you always include the spoken word as you sign. This not only supports the sign you’re using but encourages correct lip patterns, understanding of vocabulary and clarity to those around you.
Research has shown that babies who learn to sign speak sooner and have a greater vocabulary than babies that don’t. Continued use of sign language in pre-school and beyond has also shown acceleration of language acquisition, visual skills for reading and spelling.
What the experts say.
“With signs literally at your baby’s fingertips, communication between you can flourish during that difficult time from 9-30 months, when your baby’s desire to communicate outstrips their capacity to say words.”
“Signing also speeds up the process of learning to talk, stimulates intellectual development, enhances self-esteem, and strengthens the bond between parent and infant.” Dr Linda Acredolo & Susan Goodwyn ( Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, 2000)
“Using Sign language and English in tandem provides a much richer language base for brain activity and brain growth development.” Dr Marilyn Daniels (Dancing With Words: Signing For Hearing Children’s Literacy, 2001)
British Sign Language (BSL) vs Makaton.
Commonly I’m asked about the differences between BSL and Makaton. While this is quite a complex answer, I will say that I’m a huge advocate for the use of BSL, and I would be far happier if BSL was the only sign language used.
My reason for this is that British Sign language is a recognised language by the UK government. Due to its grammar and structure, BSL provides the ability to learn, progress and eventually, hold full conversations.
The Oxford English Dictionary states, “Makaton, n. Brit. A proprietary name for a language programme integrating speech, manual signs, and graphic symbols, developed to help people for whom communication is very difficult, esp. those with learning disabilities”.
Finding a class and precautions around Covid-19
My advice to you.
Have a good look around – there are some really good classes available online at the moment, but also have a look in your local area.
There are a few companies that teach baby sign language, but here are a few things to look out for:
Find a teacher with experience – some groups do not require teachers to have qualifications. I would avoid these sorts of classes even if they’re cheap, as the tutor’s knowledge may be limited, or even worse, they may teach you incorrectly.
BSL over Makaton – any communication using sign language is good, but BSL opens the door to more opportunities in future usage, should you want or need to use it.
Information – make sure your tutor will offer you after-class guidance, either via handouts, emails or videos, that will support your journey in your home environment. This really is key to your success.
Class size – sign language is a skill, and as with all learning, you’ll need to ensure that you get the correct amount of individual help and support to help you learn – so make sure you find a class where there aren’t too many people.
Covid safe – make sure guidelines are being closely followed and ask questions if you’re anxious about anything. If you’re heading into a face-to-face class, make sure you’re comfortable with the social distancing and everything they have in place for you and your baby.
Fun – classes should be fun and include music and colours as these will aid both your enjoyment of the class and your success. Research has proved that songs improve our ability to remember, as well as providing a myriad of benefits to your baby.
Personally, I can’t imagine a better way to start bonding with your little one while acquiring incredible skill and making new friends. The benefits far outweigh the effort, and the results will make your heart soar and fill yours and your child’s life with joy as they learn how to communicate with you.
Nikki Jamieson is a BSL qualified teacher and runs her The Signing Company classes in the Milton Keynes area. She is a mum to Harry, 7, and Thoe,1.