What is baby signing and how does it work?

Baby signing is gaining popularity as a way to communicate with your preverbal baby or toddler, but how does it work and what are the benefits? By Julia Boltt

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Baby signing involves you and your baby learning a simple set of signs indicating frequently used words to communicate basic needs. The experts all agree that it’s simple to learn, so why should you take the time to learn baby signing?

What it’s not

Don’t be confused by the name – this isn’t sign language that is learnt by those who are deaf or hearing impaired. “The term ‘baby signing’ can be somewhat misleading, as it isn’t a fully constructed and complex language, such as South African Sign Language. A preferred term would be baby gesture,” explains Azeemah Mayet-Moola, a qualified speech-language therapist and audiologist who has 10 years’ experience.

ALSO SEE: Does your baby have a hearing problem? Look out for these signs

“This is a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). AAC is an umbrella term that encompasses a communication method used to replace or supplement speech in people with no functional speech or in hearing children, respectively. The use of baby gesture is to connect, express and be understood,” she explains.

“There’s a misconception that it’s only for babies with special needs or hearing impairments, but it’s for better communication with your baby while he’s learning to talk,” explains Delia Hooke, founder of The BubHub and Company, a collection of mom-and-baby studios in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Baby sign language is a set of gestures that has been specifically developed for babies as young as six months. The BubHub teaches a course on baby sign language called we.can.talk. This has been developed in South Africa through a business incubator called The Awethu Project, in conjunction with academics at Wits University, but there are versions in many countries. The local version includes 50 signs divided into five daily routines – a morning routine, a night-time routine, inside play, outside play, and family and feelings. The advantage of this simple set of signs is that it’s not overwhelming for moms and babies to learn, but covers 50 of the top words that babies would want to communicate. Advocates of baby signing claim that it boosts children’s confidence and self-esteem, increases their EQ and IQ, and enhances verbal communication, but there isn’t a lot of research backing these claims.

Why should we learn it?

From about six months, babies are cognitively ready to communicate, but because speech only develops between 12 and 24 months, babies and toddlers can experience a lot of frustration in letting you know what they want. Baby signing is a simple way for them to explain what they want – for example, “I want milk” or “I’m hungry” – much earlier in their development.

ALSO SEE: Your baby’s language milestones from birth to 18 months

“The whole family can get involved. Because there are five different sections for daily routines, if dad does the bath routine, he can learn those signs,” says Chantal Rodrigues, who runs The BubHub Sandton. If a sign changes, or your baby uses a variation on a sign, it doesn’t matter – the aim is to communicate with your baby. “It’s adaptable,” she adds.

And it’s not only parents who are finding baby sign language useful. Elizabeth Steenkamp, educator and principal at the Junior Colleges Preschool Castillian in Alberton, Johannesburg, introduced the local version of baby sign language at her preschool. For many of the children there, English is a second, or even third, language and the teachers wanted to find something that helped the children feel less frustrated and communicate better with each other and with them. “It’s such a good way to help little babies and toddlers communicate with you before they learn to speak,” explains Elizabeth. She says the teachers at her preschool have noticed a decrease in frustration levels, particularly in their toddler classes.

Delia also believes that it helps parents become better communicators with their children, simply because having the tools to say “car”, for example, before a car trip, means that parents are more likely to communicate to their baby what’s coming up next.

When can we start?

It’s really from about six months and onwards that babies will take to signing. “You could start as early as three months, but we wouldn’t expect any responses from the baby at that age. We normally look at a baby’s posture – if he is able to sit up without needing to support himself with his hands, then we start,” says Elizabeth.
“The general rule of thumb is that when a baby starts solids, he can start signing (between four to six months), and it generally takes about eight weeks for him to start signing back. The older the baby is, the quicker he will take to signing,” explains Delia.

Will it affect my baby’s speech?

“It is my opinion that baby gesture has positive effects on family interactions and overall language development,” comments Azeemah. “The motor and language areas of the brain are closely connected. As an adult, when a word is on the tip of your tongue, you would often use gesture to explain yourself or use the gesture to help ‘bring out’ the word. It’s the same for children.

“We were innately built to use the path of least resistance for our basic needs. Typically, predictable and stable hand shapes develop before the onset of first words, so the path of least resistance to facilitate communication, interaction and social and emotional development, would be to use baby gesture. Most parents have been using non-verbal communication or baby gestures in their daily lives, such as waving ‘bye-bye’, gesturing to ‘come here’, playing peek-a-boo, demonstrating object function using gesture, and so on,” Azeemah explains. “Communication is a two-way process.

In personal family accounts of baby signing, parents have noted improved parent-child interaction on a multi-sensory level. Sometimes, this could include increased interaction, better understanding and connecting as well as a decrease in tantrums.”

“It’s important that when you’re signing, you’re saying the word out loud as well. If you aren’t, you’re focusing on only the visual and not the auditory,” Elizabeth cautions. Azeemah recommends that parents and caregivers use speech with the gesture. “For example, to use the sign for ‘more’ while saying the word ‘more’. Parents shouldn’t tell their child, ‘Say more’. They should merely provide the spoken language for the sign. This will encourage the child to say the word as well as use the gesture.”

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