Imagine if you understood all your baby's goo goos and ga gas. No frustration. No tantrums (on your baby’s part either). That’s what Sara Bingham, a Toronto mother and Communicative Disorders Assistant, found when she applied her knowledge of sign language to her own babies. Sara’s work with the Toronto Preschool Speech and Language Services before she had children opened her eyes to the benefits of signing with children who had developmental delays. Even though neither Sara nor her children are deaf or hard of hearing, she found that teaching them sign language unlocked their ability to communicate, before their ability to speak. A child’s first words may come at 12 to 18 months, but a child can first sign at six to 12 months.
Many tantrums and meltdowns come from a child’s frustration at not being able to communicate his needs or wants. “I recognized that if they had an alternate way to communicate before speech developed, they would present fewer challenging behaviours, and we would just plain have fun,” says Sara. Signing allows a child to tell a parent exactly what he needs, eliminating the guessing game. To help teach other families about the benefits of signing with their babies, Sara started a workshop in baby signing called WeeHands (weehands.com), which now has more than 50 instructors across North America as well as Australia and Japan. Teaching your baby to sign is easier than you think. People unintentionally teach their babies to wave goodbye, for example, when they wave and say ‘goodbye’ at the same time. An action is being connected to a word. Sara suggests starting with ‘mommy’, ‘daddy’, ‘milk’ and ‘more’. It’s surprisingly simple. Exaggerate the word you want to sign. For example, when saying to your child, “it’s time to eat lunch,” slowly say the word ‘eat’ while making the sign for ‘eat.’ Do this every time you use the word ‘eat’. Your child will slowly associate the sign with the word and will soon use the sign to communicate with you.
A common myth is that signing will hinder a child’s speech development. Sara says it’s actually the opposite. “Typically a developing child will want to get their point across as quickly as possible. Kids who sign don’t begin to speak sooner than kids who don’t sign but they do have bigger vocabularies and better reading skills.” Signing can also be a teaching opportunity. “My daughter pointed to an orange and signed ‘ball’,” says Sara. “I then signed ‘orange’ to her, gave her a couple of pieces of the orange and introduced her to the fruit.” If she hadn’t been able to sign ‘ball’, Sara wouldn’t have known her daughter thought the round fruit was a ball. Signing is a great way to communicate with a child who does not or cannot speak. Two percent of the children in Sara’s classes have special needs such as Autism or Down Syndrome.