At a family dinner over Christmas, the Rascal tapped my arm to get my attention. When I turned to him he asked me for more food. This was soon followed by a request for a sip of water. Later as he got tired and overwhelmed by everything, he asked to go somewhere quiet and have his milk. Nothing special about this scenario, except that my son is 13 months old, and the only words he can say are ‘Mama’ and ‘light’. Looking at him, you wouldn’t even think that he might be aware of his basic needs and wants. But he is, and he does try and communicate them to us. All he’s lacking is an age-appropriate means to convey his desires. Thankfully, he’s learning how to tell us what he needs.
Baby sign is quite popular over in America, but isn’t so common in Ireland yet. It’s one of a multitude of classes and groups that you can bring your baby to. In fact your weekly schedule could be completely full if you had unlimited funds for all the fees! It’s hard to select the ones that will be best value for you and your baby. In this case, the idea of helping your baby to communicate their needs early on before they’ve mastered speech is a great one. I’d heard excellent things about Superhands classes. The franchise was founded by Miriam Devitt, who taught her daughter to sign proficiently, and has gone on to develop a business teaching others. There’s a beautiful illustrated dictionary that you can order online and use to teach your baby some basic signs. The classes are great fun for babies, and help teach and motivate the parents to sign with their child.
We started when the Rascal was almost one. It was a bit later than I would have liked, but well within the age range for the classes. Our classes were run by Miriam herself, who was extremely patient and friendly with all the participants, little and big. The Rascal was delighted to arrive each week and investigate all the toys in the room. He didn’t pay much attention to the signs I was doing in class at all. Occasionally he’d watch another adult signing and look somewhat puzzled. If he got tired of chewing all the toys, he’d rob someone’s water bottle instead. Classes are a bit less relaxing if you’ve got one of the mobile babies! In the meantime we learnt many signs through nursery rhymes and songs. After a couple of classes it was easier to pick them up. The classes are 30 minutes long, so the babies don’t get too worn out. Then there’s tea and biscuits for the parents, and a chance to chat or feed the babies. It’s a nice environment for spending some time with your baby each week. Obviously it’s then up to you to start using the signs you’ve learnt with your baby, so they can learn them in everyday use.
So how did the signing go? Well, the Rascal is the right age to be dextrous enough to attempt some signs. Very quickly he started to sign for ‘milk’. However that sign was, and sometimes still is, synonymous with ‘Mama’. Understandable, really. He was utterly delighted to be able to communicate in some small way with us once he realised there was a cause and effect working in his favour. He enthusiastically made the sign all day, but even half-asleep during his night feeds, his hand would rise to triumphantly make the gesture. We’d made a good start!
A few short weeks later we were going for breakfast in a hotel when he started doing what looked like the ‘cookie’ sign. He’d done it a couple of times during the week, but at times when I didn’t have food on hand. It wasn’t one of the most common signs I used with him daily, but was a very distinctive once. This time I had his current favourite food (cheese and lentil wedges) ready for distracting him as we ate. So we repeated the sign back to him and offered food. He was absolutely ecstatic that we’d finally understood, and signed for every bite he ate! This was huge progress for him. A couple more weeks and he started doing his version of the ‘water’ sign too. Now he really got serious about communicating with us.
He’s very determined about asking for food. He knows we can understand him, and expects us to provide when asked! With the aid of his magic pointing finger (also recently discovered), he can be quite specific about exactly what he does and doesn’t want to eat. His intake of solid food and water consumption have rocketed now that he can tell us when and what to offer. We’re currently still working on understanding more of what he’s trying to tell us. Some signs look very similar when done by little hands that don’t have full dexterity. He frequently signs for toilet either when he’s peed in his nappy, or we ask him if he needs to go. Occasionally we all get the timing right and he gets to use the toilet when he needs to. We’re really looking forward to mastering that one! He was busy learning to walk over the Christmas break, but now he’s ready to concentrate on more signing again.
It’s hard to explain how amazing it is to have this kind of basic communication with your baby. To have him tell you that he’s hungry, or thirsty. That he’s tired, or wants a fresh nappy. It’s only when he started signing for these basic things that I really thought about how much he actually does understand already, and how incredibly frustrating it must be not to be able to communicate these simple needs. He thinks about what’s going on around him far more than I gave him credit for up until now. I hope that if he keeps learning more signs then he’ll feel less frustration during the next year while he’s still struggling to find the words to express what’s happening with him.
We’re very happy with using baby sign so far. In fact we start the advanced class this week to keep the ball rolling. It’s well worth the effort. At least a couple of times every day he pauses, midway through drinking his milk. He grins, and signs ‘milk’. I smile back, repeat the sign, and agree that he’s having his milk. He might do this several times before he’s content, and happily continues. When he does this I can clearly feel his joy at communicating with me. Of telling me something, having me listen to him, and most importantly, of being understood. It’s impossible to put a value on that.