Andrea Burrell, 35, is full-time mum to 11-month-old Harry. She’s married to Sean, 28, a recruitment consultant, and the family lives in Nottingham.
Andrea started taking Harry along to baby signing classes when he was 6 months old and she recorded his progress in a week-by-week diary...
When I first heard about baby signing from my friend Becky, who I met at antenatal classes, I was sceptical. It just didn’t seem likely that a baby as young as Harry – who was only 4 months old – was going to be able to communicate.
But Becky was really enthusiastic, and had become a teacher with Tiny Talk, an organisation running baby signing classes, so I agreed to take Harry to a course that would start when he was six months old.
I was apprehensive about it all before the first class, and I was worried about how Harry was going to take it. I thought he’d just cry and make a fuss, but in fact the first class went better than I expected.
There were lots of babies and toddlers who’d been going to classes for a few months and they were all signing away to their mums – it was an amazing sight. We learnt four signs – ‘milk’, ‘food’, ‘all gone’ and ‘what?’. Those are the really important words a baby needs, and Becky suggested new participants like me should use these signs during the next week at home.
Good news – Harry loves me using the signs I’ve learnt! The one he seems to like best is the sign for milk, which is the one I suppose I’ve used the most this past week. At the class he especially loved the part where we all sing nursery rhymes, signing the actions.
An amazing thing has happened – Harry used the milk sign himself! He obviously fancied a bottle, and he decided he’d tell me about it. At first I thought I was imagining this, that it was too soon for it to happen – but no, he was making a fist, the sign for milk that I’ve been using every time I give him a bottle. I was over the moon, I’ve been telling everyone I’ve met all week.
I was worried that I’d forget everything we learnt in class from one week to the next, but Becky makes it clear that you just use the signs you need, and I’ve found there are some that I’ve got to know very well indeed. The classes aren’t daunting at all – in fact I’m making some new friends and it’s a great way to get out and meet other mums.
Now when I make the sign for ‘daddy’, Harry’s eyes go straight to the front door. It’s so exciting to be able to communicate with him although he’s still so tiny. He also loves cars, so the sign for car has become a firm favourite!
Our big news this week is that Harry is saying da, da, da and seems to mean something when he’s saying it – he’s using it as a label for whatever it is he wants. It’s making me less worried that his speech will be delayed because of the signing, although we’re both so pleased we’re doing classes that I don’t think it can be a mistake. I’ve also been teaching Harry’s grandparents some of the basic signs, so that they can use them when they see him, too.
The best part of baby signing is how much fun we’re both having with it! Harry’s favourite thing at the moment is Megan our cat, so whenever we’re talking about her I always use the sign for ‘cat’ and say ‘Megan cat’. Harry just grins and bounces up and down, he adores hearing me talk about her.
We’re still loving the classes. Each week we learn about five new signs and this week it was ‘apple’, ‘banana’, ‘biscuit’ and ‘teeth’. Harry seems to be a lot less frustrated than he used to be, which I reckon is because he can understand so much of our sign language – and sometimes he’s able to sign back .
He can now make the sign for eat and knows the signs for ‘car’, ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’, ‘hug’ and ‘cat’, although he can’t quite manage to do them himself just yet.
We learnt the signs for ‘plane’, ‘boat’ and ‘park’. I’ve also been using the sign for ‘home’ when we’re out, and he understands me now. What’s so good is that signing is two way – Harry is learning to sign more as he learns new ‘words’ and his ability to communicate will come on in leaps and bounds.
Had a bit of confusion this week. Harry’s been using the ‘milk’ sign for everything! I was surprised because he’d seemed to have it all organised, but I think it’s normal for them sometimes to fall back a bit. He’s very vocal, and at class we did the signs for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, so he’s learning his manners early!
Sean and I got out the DVD of Meet the Fockers to watch, and there’s a reference in that to baby signing! The movie sent it up a bit, but the good thing is that it’s giving signing publicity and I think more and more parents are going to be interested in finding out about it. At class we sang Dingle Dangle Scarecrow, signing the words, and Harry just loved it.
This was a revision week. The Tiny Talk course is 12 weeks long, so the last week involves recapping what we’ve already learnt. But some parents elect to do the course again to reinforce what they’ve already learnt and to carry on meeting the group, so Harry and I are going to continue.
It’s amazing how much more I feel I can connect with him because of signing: obviously mums ‘know’ what their babies want a lot of the time, but especially as they get older it helps to have a language. I’m sure Harry is a lot more contented and less frustrated because we’re able to talk to each other. The best bit of all is that he seems to enjoy it so much! It’s been a huge success!
Two months later…
We’ve carried on going to the signing classes and Harry now uses a wide range of signs to communicate. But he’s also speaking a lot these days, too; he’s able to say ‘food’, ‘milk’ and ‘warm’. What I’ve found is that signing the words as well as saying them reinforces their meaning for him. As a result, he’s beginning to use words with more confidence.
As far as I’m concerned there’s no way that Harry’s speech has been delayed by signing. None of Harry’s contemporaries outside signing classes is able to say anything like as much as he can. On the other hand, some of them are much better at moving around – he still doesn’t stand or walk – so I guess that, while he’s very vocal, he’s not yet much of a mover. But that will come in the end and, in the meantime, I’m thrilled with how much we’re able to communicate with one another!
How baby signing started:
The idea of teaching babies to use sign language before they could speak came from the US, where child development expert Dr Joseph Garcia realised that hearing children born to deaf parents learned sign language before they could speak and seemed more contented than other babies as they could express their needs from a younger age.
Several organisations in the UK now run signing classes, including Babysigners and Tiny Talk, where babies can join from birth. You can start using sign language as early as you like with your baby, although it’s usually at between 6 and 9 months that they start to sign back. Parents who worry that learning to sign will delay speech development are usually reassured, as Andrea was, that in fact the opposite often happens: signing helps babies realise how useful communication is, so they may learn to speak even sooner.