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Baby signing

If you haven't heard of baby signing yet, you probably will do sometime soon. Although it's an idea that was developed relatively recently, it has spread like wildfire, and baby signing classes are popping up all over the place. We spoke to babysigning teacher Emma Finlay-Smith of Babysigners Ltd ( and asked her to explain what baby signing is all about.

CBAs early as six months, your baby knows what he wants - and he'd tell you if only he could talk - but he's going to have to wait another six months or so before his vocal mechanism has developed enough to speak, and a year or more before he can tackle more complex words. A year's an awfully long time when you're a baby. No wonder he gets so frustrated - it's enough to make you want to scream! That's where sign language comes in. It's simple to learn a few signs to start with and then build up your repertoire as your baby progresses.


Emma Finlay-Smith


It's a fairly new thing isn't it - where did the idea start?

It may come as some surprise to all those people who think of signing with babies as being very new to find out that it's actually based upon more than 30 years of research by internationally respected academics, most notably Dr Joseph Garcia who back in the early 70s was working as an interpreter and noticed that children of deaf adults were communicating with sign earlier than children of hearing adults were talking.

Having said this, it's fair to say that it is most certainly an idea whose time has come. The practical experience of the last three decades have now provided us with proven learning programmes, hints and tips to make signing easy and immensely rewarding for parents and babies alike.

What are the advantages?

The most obvious advantage is that it allows babies as young as six or seven months to communicate their wants and thoughts. This eliminates a lot of the guess work and frustration out of parenting. The check list that we work through when our babies start crying; hungry, tired, thirsty, dirty nappy etc. pretty much disappears as our little ones are now able to communicate effectively allowing us to get straight to the point.

What is the best age to start to teach babies to sign?

Your baby will be capable of learning signs from the age of six months. It will not be detrimental to start earlier but there will be a correspondingly longer period to wait before your baby starts to sign. This is due to the need for your baby to develop memory and co-ordination to recognise, remember and make the signs. However, it is never too late to start signing.

Do you have to go to classes or is it something you can do at home by yourself with your baby?

There wasn't the luxury and social aspect of classes when I started signing with my daughter. We used a book by Dr Garcia and got on famously with it. However, classes are great at keeping you motivated and socialising with other signing families, creating a sign rich environment for your baby. I would advise that parents join a class but also invest in a good baby signing guide so that they have access to signs they need immediately, rather than having to wait days to ask their teacher in class.

How long does it take to learn?

The speed at which babies learn to use signs can depend on their age. They will be able to start learning signs from as young as six months, but will usually take a few weeks or even months to start signing themselves. Older babies tend to be able to pick it up faster. It can take a while for a baby to become confident enough to sign but as long as you keep reinforcing the signs during your daily routine your baby will start to sign. The consistent use of a few signs on a daily basis has proved to be a key method for success.

Doesn't it delay their speech if babies are able to sign?

No. Just the opposite, in fact. All the research shows that learning to communicate earlier gives babies a real head start in life. They'll start to talk earlier and develop their vocabulary faster than non-signing babies. And the longest running research study available has shown that, even at the age of eight, they'll still be significantly ahead of their classmates.

Can it be confusing for the child if not everyone understands, and can respond to, their signing?

Absolutely! In this case I recommend highly that if you are signing with your baby you should create their own personal signing book and leave it with the person looking after your baby. This way if they start to sign, they will be understood. It is also important to encourage as many family and friends to get on board with signing.

Some people may say it's just another pushy parent idea and we should leave babies to develop communication skills at their own pace - how would you respond to that?

I had to smile when asked this question - it took me right back to my experience of signing with my daughter. Being a complete novice at the time I introduced one sign to start with 'drink'. Once she had that mastered she then became very pushy to learn more and more signs - I could hardly keep up. Babies naturally gesture anyway; they wave goodbye, put their arms up to be cuddled, point when they want something. Baby signing takes these natural gestures one step further and gives a baby a wider vocabulary to choose from. I think signing with your baby is a wonderful bonding and loving thing to do.

Are there long-term advantages for babies who have learnt to sign?

Research does prove that there are long term advantages but this is not a reason to sign with your baby to my mind. Opening up communication, building a better bond, understanding your baby's thoughts and needs and helping to develop their self esteem and confidence in the process is where the magic really is and the reason that I am so passionate about signing with babies.

Irene Thiede used baby signing with both her children, and explains how it worked for her family.

I had read some snippets about it in baby magazines, but when my daughter was about 9 months old, I watched a friend doing it with her child. I was so impressed, I asked her to teach me some signs to try out myself with Hanna. As they tell you, it takes a few weeks for the child to catch on, and I had already given up on it when Hanna made her first, awkward sign to me!

That first sign from my daughter really got me motivated and I went to a three hour course. That was useful because you could ask questions and the teacher showed us a lot of signs and gave us a little picture-dictionary for further reference at home.

When you think about how much toddlers pick up every single waking minute of their lives, it's no wonder that signing is easy for them. The very first signs take a number of weeks, but once they're into it, they pick up new ones quite quickly. I remember Hanna got the sign for "rain" immediately. It was pounding so loudly on the roof of the car and when we got out, she could really see the drops coming down - that sign (you hold your hands out, wiggle your fingers and move your hands down, very intuitive) really stuck.

It's very sweet to watch those little fingers trying to copy yours!

In our case, the fact that the children grew up in a bilingual environment (German household in English surroundings) meant that signing even helped them in a stage of their lives when their brains were still busy understanding two words for everything - signing is just one, irrespective of background. Adults are supposed to always say the word or expression that you are signing, and so they really got to know both languages - they weren't as confused by the language issue because they had the sign to see and use themselves.

My small child and I "talked" to each other much earlier than those mums and kids who didn't sign, and we all know how touching it is to finally have two-way communication with your child. And communication involves fun (it is fun to sign!), and even humour when they try and teach you a sign for something they want to say. One highlight which I won't forget is Hanna sitting in the shopping trolley in the aisle as I dashed left and right to grab things off the shelves. She was whingey and unhappy and then, while I was looking at her from quite a distance, she made the sign "pain" and pointed at her throat. Then I got the message - no wonder she was unhappy - she had a sore throat! That is certainly something a kid of that age couldn't have communicated with speech.

The most important signs my kids used were for thirst, hunger, MORE (a great one in all situations), nappy change, tired, cold, etc, to show their feelings and needs. And of course the things they saw and wanted to share with me -the bonding aspect is really important. I also think that my children were able to talk earlier rather than later, as they already had the concept of the word in their minds and were using the sign freely and so in fact were already communicating that word even before their speech could support them. So as soon as the physical skills were in place, talking just came naturally.


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