Baby sign language: 'My baby was able to ask me for milk at seven months'
Communicating with your baby before they can speak is becoming an increasingly popular trend. Isabel Hayes reports on baby sign language
To anyone walking by, it looks like your average parent and baby group. There are bright posters on the walls, toys on the ground, babies in various states of crawling, walking and tummy time and doting parents singing nursery rhymes.
But this is no ordinary play group. This is baby sign language. The parents singing songs are also doing hand gestures to accompany key words like 'milk', 'dog' and 'again'. And while most of the babies appear to be unresponsive to the signs now, they'll almost certainly be communicating through sign language within a few months, if their parents persevere.
Sceptical? Lots of people are at first, according to Miriam Devitt, founder of Irish baby sign language company, SuperHands. "It's still considered a bit wacky in this country, unlike in the States and the UK where it's completely normal," she says. "In those countries, it's like doing baby yoga and baby massage. But over here, we're catching up. Once people see what it is, they realise it's a good idea. The most sceptical person can be turned around in about two minutes."
Baby sign language is exactly what it sounds like - traditional sign language broken down into simple key gestures for babies to use, helping them to tell their parents what they're thinking and feeling before they can speak. Parents can start as early or as late as they want, but most start around the six-month age group, when a baby is beginning to do natural gestures like pointing and waving.
"If you start around six months, most babies begin to sign back by about 10 to 12 months," says Devitt. "But understanding their parents' signs is just as important. The absolute goal isn't just to have them sign to you, it's to understand what you're saying. That's the beginning of communication."
Devitt first found out about baby sign language eight years ago, when she was expecting her daughter, Robin. She couldn't find any classes in Ireland, and online resources were all British and American sign language.
"I wanted to use Irish sign language because I felt it was important to use the language of our local deaf community," she says. So Devitt took an Irish Sign Language (ISL) course and started teaching Robin some basic signs. It was a huge success - Robin caught on quickly and did her first sign for milk at seven months.
In 2010, Devitt held her first class in a room in her west Clare home, which soon spread to the local community centre and then on to Limerick. SuperHands is now a franchise, with classes held around the country, a dictionary compiled by Devitt, and a smartphone app.
Parents are taught to start with simple signs related to their baby's needs, such as 'milk' or 'more' and repeat them consistently during feeds or meal times. Once the baby starts reacting to the basic signs, their vocabulary is then gradually extended to things like parents, pets and emotions.
It won't be long before baby reacts to the first sign, says Devitt. "Using your hands is helping to focus their attention," she says. "Babies will look at something that's new longer than something that's expected. When you use sign language, they probably haven't seen you specifically gesture like this before, so they're watching what you're doing and they're also hearing the word."
It's this constant repetition and baby-led conversations that help babies to understand the world more easily, Devitt says.
"The best thing you can do with your baby is just interact with them," she says. "Loving caregivers speaking and playing with their baby is really everything that they need in those early years to be the healthiest, happiest person they can be. Signing adds to that.
"A lot of parents report to me that they didn't speak to their baby as much until they started signing, because it really helps them to focus on what they're saying."
Kirana Wilkinson, a first-time mum from Loughlinstown, Co Dublin signed up for baby sign language with her then nine-month-old daughter Bethany, after hearing about it through a friend.
"I was quite sceptical about the whole thing," she says. "I just thought it would just be something fun to do and a way to meet other moms." But when Bethany made her first sign for 'lights' at 10 months, Wilkinson says she was astounded.
"I was so excited, I just couldn't believe it," she said. "Then at meal times she started signing for 'more', and then she started signing 'again' when we got to the end of the book. My whole family thought I was nuts for doing the class, but once they saw her, they couldn't believe it."
When Bethany, now aged 20 months, got a vomiting bug earlier this year, she was able to sign when she was sick, thirsty and hungry.
"It really came into its own then," says Wilkinson. "It's great to know what she wants and to name the emotions she might be feeling, like sad or angry."
A common misperception of baby signing is that it will hinder a child's speech. Not so, according to Devitt, who says research in the US has shown the opposite is true.
"Babies who sign actually tend to speak earlier than those who don't," she says. "It brings on spoken language because you're not replacing speaking with signs, you're adding sign to the spoken language. Some children with speech delay who go to a speech and language therapist will often do signing with them. It enhances their speech and it's designed to help them speak earlier."
As a toddler begins to speak, signing often decreases. But in the midst of a terrible twos tantrum, signing can come in handy again when they can't remember their words. What's more, a signing child will often have less tantrums, because they are able to communicate their needs and wants more effectively with their caregiver.
"If a baby is used to being understood and they're used to their caregivers helping to figure it out, then they're just calmer in general," says Devitt. "And that is a lovely bonding thing, when you lock eyes and you understand each other."
Offaly mum-of-two Jennifer Phillips agrees. "I can't imagine how much harder it must be to be a parent without baby sign language and without being able to communicate without it," she says.
Phillips did a SuperHands course with both of her children - Caitríona (now three) and Carrig (16 months). By the time she was 15-months-old, Caitríona had an impressive 70 signs. "Our lives are so much easier because they're able to tell me what they want, or what they're thinking without getting upset," says Phillips.
For Alice Chau, from Dublin's North Strand, baby sign language is a way she and her husband can jointly communicate with their 17-month-old son Taran, who is growing up trilingual.
Chau, originally from Hong Kong, speaks Cantonese with Taran, while her French-Canadian husband speaks French and his crèche speaks English to him.
According to Chau, trilingual children often don't speak until they are three or even four years old. "The real issue for us is that we won't know what he wants when he is frustrated, so we're hoping sign language will help that," says Chau. "As a multilingual family, it's nice to have one common language we all understand."
For information on classes, visit superhands.ie
● Start slowly with one or two basic words to do with your baby's needs, such as milk or eat. Each time they are eating or drinking, make the sign while saying the word aloud.
● Start as early as you like, but remember that most babies won't start signing until they're at least seven months and probably older. Most babies begin to sign aged between eight and 14 months.
● Be consistent. For example, every time you go for a drive, show your baby the sign for car.
● Praise all attempts your baby makes at signing.
● Encourage others who spend time with your baby to sign too.
● Be patient. Like any new skill, signing can take time for a baby to master.
● Keep it fun. Be expressive with your voice and actions and put signs into songs and nursery rhymes. Stop as soon as your baby loses interest.