Sign O’ The Times

So, we’re all doing baby signing, right? Good. And we all realise that baby signing is totally awesome, right? Also good. Because if you don’t fall into the above category of signing evangelists, the chances are it’s because you’ve met some parents that claimed baby signing didn’t really work for them. Now, normally on this blog we’re all happy-clappy and hyper inclusive and go-your-own-way about pretty much all aspects of parenting as long as no actual child endangerment is involved, but I’m going to be unusually strident on this one. If anyone has told you baby signing doesn’t work, shun them. Those people are idiots.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but only slightly. Most of the parents I know with children older than Scarlett have found at least a small repertoire of baby signs useful; the two who told me they didn’t get on with signing actually, genuinely said they’d tried using the signs at home twice or three times, the baby didn’t copy immediately, and so they gave up. (I emphasise: no paraphrasing here. If the parents in question were misrepresenting themselves then all I can say is I’m not misrepresenting their own misrepresentations). But sheesh, I can only hope that’s not their approach to all things.

So, baby signing takes a bit of patience and more than two repetitions to bed in; but what’s it actually useful for? Let’s assume you either know or have worked out from the name that it’s a simplified version of the BSL used by hearing-impaired people, designed for use by babies and their carers. The principle is simple: baby signing bridges the gap between the time that babies start passively recognising individual words (and mapping those words onto concepts in the lived world) and being able to actively produce sounds correctly.  Being able to use gesture (which is something that happens naturally, as any pointing, waving, reaching-for-stuff baby will tell you) to communicate needs and other ideas is empowering for a baby, and for a parent too. It takes some of the guesswork out of the “what is it you’re looking for/trying to do/unhappy about?” conundrums that arise daily. Hourly. Every five minutes.


“But,” I hear you wonder, “if my baby is able to reveal their every thought and wish through signing, won’t that stop them from learning to talk or at least slow them down?” Reader, this is a field in which I have some actual professional experience, so I am going to get pedagogical right now. (If you want to skip over the following analysis, the TL:DR is “no”; join us again at the bottom for the big finale.)

In the bad old days, language teachers used to make the assumption that language learners could accommodate a finite total of language in their brains, and so any use of one language would push another out. This led to well-meaning advice, particularly to new migrant arrivals, to only speak the new host language of the country in which they’d arrived (even at home and even if the new arrivals weren’t yet proficient in the new language), for fear of the mother tongue somehow overriding and replacing any new language learned. The result was – particularly for children of new arrivals – a lack of any well-modelled language, leading to difficulty acquiring either the mother tongue or the new host language.


Today, following solid research with MRI scans and things, we think very differently about how the language centres of the brain work, and how we learn and retain language structures. With (especially) children of new migrant arrivals, we tend to think it’s beneficial to develop a native language at home: to be exposed to concepts like grammatical structures, sentences of increasing complexity, nuance and idiomatic usage in a well-modelled language environment so that these concepts can be mapped more easily onto a new second language.

Research suggests that – contrary to the old perspective – languages don’t compete in the brain for space and push one another out; rather, we acquire language learning as a much more general and universal skill, which means that any body of language we learn well (including our own native tongue) serves as a strong base on which to build other new language skills including foreign language acquisition. Language learning looks less like a pair of scales with one side weighing down the other, and more like an iceberg with a whole base of language skill underneath, supporting one or more peaks of language expression above  the surface.

What’s that got to do with signing? Well, gestural communication is a form of language, and it teaches not only the naming of things like zoo animals and items of clothing,  it teaches some quite sophisticated concepts: the very fact that words/signs can be used to represent objects and ideas; how words work together to make longer meaningful phrases; which words belong with actions and which belong with objects; and even how ideas unfold over time, which is the start of understanding tenses. For the most part, babies and toddlers will start joining their own spoken words and phrases together long before they need to start formally naming parts of speech; but attaching gestural signs to spoken words, and both signs and words to objects and feelings, is the basis of a skill set that supports all other language learning – from verbalising in the child’s own first language to learning a range of other spoken languages.

There’s a couple of caveats on that: when signing, we (the adults) always speak the word at the same time as signing; and when the child makes an effort to vocalise the sound then we praise and encourage so that signing doesn’t replace speaking entirely. But we’ve had fantastically positive results in just a few short weeks of signing. Our simple “change your nappy” song, performed with signing gestures to the tune of Frere Jacques, has been nothing short of life-changing; before we were wrestling an unhappy baby onto the changing table, now it’s smiles and co-operation all the way. Further to our introducing the song, Scarlett recently used the “clean” sign to tell us she actually wanted a nappy change; she was very obviously happy that we had understood and met her need, and we felt pretty good too. (I’ve definitely also seen her use the signs for “duck” and “music”, so from this you can clearly see what we get up to at home of an evening).

How can you learn baby signing? We’ve been going to a Sing and Sign class with a marvellously bonkers woman who has taught us signs for everything from “swings” to “giraffe” through the medium of repurposed nursery rhymes; I don’t know when Scarlett will ever need to tell us that she can see a snake in the jungle but if she so chooses, she now can in three different keys. There are also video resources online, and a whole show on CBeebies that I’ve never seen but I’ve heard is very good; or you can just make up your own signs and use them consistently while talking to your baby, you probably do anyway. Just do it a bit bigger. But definitely do it, I totally recommend it; and if you meet anyone who thinks otherwise I’d give them a bit of a shun just to be on the safe side. You never know what they’ll come out with next.

11 thoughts on “Sign O’ The Times

  1. 100% this. And the best thing – quite apart from the specifics about being able to know when she wants food or getting her excited in anticipation of her bath – is that Ada is clearly delighted that she can actually communicate with us. It’s that meta lesson that is the most rewarding for her – and for us. Like you, we clearly speak the word at the same time, and she’s copying those phonemes too – not perfectly, of course, but to her mum and dad, recognisably.

    Signing is terrific. We can unlock what’s inside her little head. If we had to wait till she was actually able to muster her voice, it would be months more of frustration and anxiety as we tried to work out what she wanted and needed.

    And FWIW, we just fell into it from watching Something Special, the BBC show you mention.

    • (as I said on Twitter) I think a little frustration can be a motivating thing, when it comes to eg. gross motor skills and locomotion; but as you say getting recognisable phonemes out comes months and months after passive recognition, and in between comes a period of time that can be the wrong kind of frustrating for everyone.

      I don’t think Scarlett is going to be a quiet one at all – she’s already chatty in her own way – but I think signing is an important step on the way to verbal communication, not a replacement or a sidetrack. I have heard that fear expressed by some people, so I wanted to address that a bit in case anyone reading was in two minds.

  2. From Lani on Facebook: Tee hee. We didn’t do brilliantly with signs – made me realise how seldom I was in front of a baby rather than holding one – but my efforts to teach a few signs did result in those words being vocalised particularly early so it’s all good.

    (Editor’s note: I totally got the idea of baby signing from Lani so it can’t have gone that badly!)

  3. From Alex on Facebook: I meant so well with the signing and did so little… she let me off the hook by talking early, but I saw it working beautifully with my nephew and niece who had a much better mum 😉

    I just kept forgetting, if I’m honest, and I’m a big talker (shocking) so I did lots of narrating and wild Greek gesticulation and so we muddled through. But I’d definitely recommend trying it (properly) for all the reasons you talk about.

  4. From Neil on Twitter: A loved ‘sing & sign’ as she could tell us exactly what was wrong & have it fixed more effectively than just by crying

  5. Preach! We love Sing & Sign. Sawyer’s still a bit little to be actively signing, but he understands the signs (in class I do the milk signs behind my back because he’ll cry if he doesn’t get the goods). Dave uses “more” a lot when he’s playing with him, e.g. more tickling?, more dangling upside down isthisstillfunny?? So now he does the “more” sign a lot, but we’re a bit like “more….what?” It’s always milk.

  6. From Natasha on Twitter: 100% with you on this as well. Worked for son no.1 & we are doing it with son no.2. Amazing 2 see them understanding it!

  7. From Juliette on Facebbook: I think 12-18 months is the age when signing really comes into its own and that it is easy to write it off too early. At that age they are cognitively capable of learning *lots* of signs (think 100+) and can probably only vocalise a tiny number of words in comparison.

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