Gestures and signing

Before an infant/toddler can talk they will often use gestures to help them get what they want, or let you know that they want you to do something again. This is not always easy for others to understand and can be very frustrating for your child. These can be easily taught and will help your child to communicate before they can speak.

To help set, and encourage this behaviour, start by playing games in which your child can use a gesture to ask for another toy, or to continue playing.

Use small toys, which your child enjoys and can hold in one hand, the idea is to pass a toy to your child. Watch your child and every time they look at, or seem interested in a toy or objected, pass it to them. Ideally you will place the toy/object into the palm of their hand.  As the game continues try to add a pause between your child looking at the toy, or you, before handing it to them. This will encourage them to use a palm-up request gesture; it is amazing how quickly they pick up on this simple gesture and the benefit that it provides; communicating their needs before they can talk. But remember this does not stop you from talking through and putting words to the gestures.

Simple signing is a fantastic way of helping your child to express their needs and wants before they can verbalise them. This can make life so much more enjoyable and less frustrating for all. Some people worry that if a child learns to sign it will stop them from talking; well this is just not true. When we sign, or use gestures, we also say the word or phrase that relates to the sign.

Signing is about enhancing, not replacing language. We gesture all the time as we talk; it is one of our normal communication strategies. Some people use their hands more than others when talking, it is a sub-conscious thing which we are often unaware of until others point it out to us.

You can start using signs with your baby as soon as they are born, however it is often between the ages of 9 months and 18 months that children start to combine gestures and sounds to communicate.

The most useful signs are those that relate to the things your child wants and likes, or cause them most frustration.

The most common signs tend to be ‘more’, ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘eat’, ‘drink’, ‘up’ and ‘down’.

If your child needs to learn sign language due to a particular special needs requirement then this needs to be taught in a structured way. Otherwise you can make up your own signs that help you to communicate more effectively with your child and them with you and others.

It is best to start with 2 or 3 signs your child has got the physical ease and ability to do, for example nodding their head up and down for yes or moving their fist up and down for yes. Say the words every time you or your child makes a sign. So if they sign for ‘more’ and you are giving them a drink, or they are giving you back a cup, you respond with “More to drink”.

As your child learns a sign you can use more than one sign at a time. So to begin with you would sign “Do you want to eat?” and then later this can become “Do you want more to eat?” when they have learned the signs for more.

Simple baby signing can really take some of the heat out of ‘The Terrible Two’s’ stage, limiting the frustration of them not being able to communicate some of their basic needs. The important thing is to talk and sign at the same time. Your child will then be able to talk with their voice and hands, helping them to become a great communicator. There are a large number of useful websites that can help you pick up a few basic signs to get you started.