Our experience of babysigning (finally!)

At last I’m getting round to writing a post about babysigning. I guess by now I should really call it ‘toddlersigning’ as my baby is no longer a baby. Even though I’m a researcher in linguistics (with my PhD specifically in phonetics), I’d not heard of the concept of baby signing until I did a taster session at a baby and toddler group that Andrew and I used to go to when I was on maternity leave – the session was when he was about 4 months old. The lady who did the session runs a babysigning business in Cambridge (called Cambridge Babysigning), and I was so interested in what we did during the taster session that I went along to five classes (run by another tutor by then because she was on maternity leave) about this time last year, when Andrew was about 8 months old. We really enjoyed the classes, and we learnt lots of very useful signs. But not long after we did the classes I went back to work, and although I don’t work on the day of the classes, I found that it was quite a commitment to pay for ongoing classes when I wasn’t sure that we would definitely make it each week with fewer days to fit things in. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m a linguist, and generally pick up languages relatively quickly, but I felt like I’d learnt enough in those five weeks, plus I bought a couple of books to reinforce what I’d learnt, that I’d got a good enough start to give it a go and use signs with Andrew on a daily basis.

Signing 'milk' at the farm whilst we were watching a cow being milked

I’m no expert on baby signing, but from what I heard at the classes and what I’ve read, the idea is that babies can use their hands to communicate much earlier than they can use their mouths to produce accurate speech sounds that we recognise as words: the motor skills involved in signing come earlier than the fine motor skills needed for saying words. The idea is not that they become reliant on their hands and therefore don’t ‘bother’ with speech, but rather the signing helps them bridge the gap between not speaking and speaking, so that they can communicate their needs and feelings before they develop accurate speech, without getting frustrated so easily. It’s not that you sign to them full sentences (like you would with a deaf person), but rather individual key words as you’re talking, and then they pick up these signs over time, and eventually use them themselves to communicate. You wouldn’t expect a child to start with full sentences in their speech development – if they say just ‘dog’ for example, it’s pretty clear from context that they’re saying something like ‘there’s a dog’ or ‘I’ve seen a dog’, or if they say ‘drink’, it’s pretty clear that they’re actually saying ‘I’d like a drink’. It’s the same for signing – if Andrew signs the word ‘milk’, for example, I know that he’d like some milk – he doesn’t have to sign ‘I’d like some milk’.

Signing 'cow' at the farm (one-handed here - it's a horn shape that he's doing with his right hand against his head - see picture below of me doing the sign)

So we started off using a few basic signs like ‘milk’, ‘food’, ‘drink’, ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’ when he was 8 months old. It’s recommended that you start with just a few key ones, and then gradually introduce more as they get the hang of signing themselves. He started to use the ‘milk’ one first, and that was around 12 months old. It varies as to how long each child picks up signing, just like any developmental step. I remember the lady who did the taster session saying that her daughter took quite a while to do her first sign, even though she’d had constant exposure to them from an early age, whereas other children in the class were quicker to use their first signs. But once she’d started, she was quick to use more and more – that kind of developmental pattern, where there’s nothing much for ages and then all of a sudden it all comes in a big rush, is seen in speech too. Over the next few months, Andrew picked up a few more, like ‘food’ and (these were the best for us) ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ – he signed those words much sooner than he said them (he’s only just started saying them in the past few weeks).

Signing 'bird' at the farm. Index finger and thumb open and close together, mimicking a bird's beak opening and closing.

He’s also very keen on animal signs, like ‘cow’, ‘duck’, ‘bird’, ‘sheep’, all of which are accompanied by the appropriate noise (like ‘moo’ etc.). I think his favourite at the moment is ‘aeroplane’, which is still just the sign, no spoken word/noise attached to it; he signs that whenever he sees or even hears a plane (or even a motorbike or something that sounds like a plane to him!!) It was a trip to an airfield and a farm recently that inspired me to finally get round to finishing this post, which had been half-written for a while, because he did lots of very enthusiastic signing on that day out! Granny and Grandad are pleased that he can sign for them, as is Grandma, though all of them have the same sign (names are signed with the first letter, so in their case it’s all ‘G’), and he doesn’t need to do the sign for Pop (his fourth grandparent) because that’s easy enough for him to say, whereas the other three are trickier. To see some of these signs in action (both Andrew and I), here’s a link to a video of us doing some signing, as a video shows the signs much better than the photos in this post, which don’t capture the movement. This is particularly important for the aeroplane sign, his favourite, so here’s a link to a separate video for this, taken when we visited the airfield.

Andrew's favourite: aeroplane - this really is better with movement, as his hand was enthusiastically moving up and down and around, rather than just being held in the air as this photo suggests.

It’s interesting that, just like early speech, his signs are not exactly like we show him, but are near enough that we can understand. For example, ‘mummy’ is three fingers on your dominant (in my case, right) hand tapped twice against your forehead; Andrew rather more enthusiastically hits the side of his head with his whole palm, but I know that this means mummy, from when he first did it and continues to do it, now with ‘mumma’ attached. Some signs he’s very accurate at though, like bird, which is the thumb and index finger opening and closing together, to mimic a bird’s opening and closing beak. Below are some pictures of me doing some signs, so hopefully you can see the difference between my signs and his signs!

Here's me doing some signs in a photo booth for a competition at the BritMums conference that I went to back in June. Top left: cow; top right: dog; bottom left: cat; bottom right: sheep. Obviously still pictures are not as good for showing signs as a video. See the youtube link for a video showing some signs that Andrew knows.

Until Andrew actually started doing his first signs, I wasn’t sure whether what we were doing with signing was particularly useful. It took a few months to really appreciate that our effort had paid off. Once he started using them, it was obvious that this was a great way for him to communicate, and it hasn’t stopped him learning to speak words, if anything it’s helped him to make that connection between objects/actions and the word that goes with them. I think for us, it’s also been useful from the point of view of introducing more than one spoken language to him. For lots of objects/actions I’ve been telling him the English, French and German word, and by signing too, he can, I hope, make the connection that all four are related. This seems to be working so far at least. So I guess he’s really having quadrilingual rather than trilingual input! He’s not yet ready to say the word ‘aeroplane’ in any language it seems, but he’s totally obsessed with signing whenever he hears or sees one, many times every day – quite often I haven’t even heard it until he signs, because they are just in the background noise to me, whereas he seems to be particularly sensitive at spotting them. And when I ask him in any of the three spoken languages ‘where’s the aeroplane?’ (or any question involving ‘aeroplane’), he enthusiastically signs, showing that he’s made the connection between the three spoken words and the sign. Amazing!

A great way to use signs and reinforce them over and over again is by singing songs and signing along to them. I reckon that’s why he’s picked up the animal ones so quickly – because there are songs like Old MacDonald Had a Farm and other classics involving animals that we sing all the time at groups and at home, and I sign along whenever we do (even though I probably look slightly odd at groups where no other parent is signing – I’m a linguist, I’m totally up for having a go at languages even if I look silly, it’s the trying that counts!) It’s not all about singing though; I mean I don’t sing to him when it’s time for food! There are quite a few everyday signs like ‘food’, ‘drink’ and ‘nappy’ that I just use every time we do that word – which is quite often, as you can imagine.

Signing 'sheep' at the farm - he was circling his hand round and round by his head and saying baa baa at the same time

I’m very glad that we came across babysigning when we did, as I feel it has definitely been a positive, helpful and fun thing for all three of us, as well as other family members, to use. Andrew does sometimes get frustrated, like lots of toddlers, usually when he doesn’t get his way with something, but I think it could be a lot worse at 18 months because I’m sure there is less communication-related frustration than if we hadn’t signed. Of course I will never know for sure on this, but from our experience, I’d recommend giving it a go. With baby number 2, we’ll be signing around them from birth, so it will be interesting to see whether he/she picks things up quicker than Andrew did, or not. I guess second children have a different experience from first children with so many things, like speech and walking (because they have an older sibling to ‘copy’ and try and be like), and signing is just another example of this.

I get the feeling that babysigning is becoming more and more popular these days. Have you given it a go? How have you found it? What does your little one make of it so far? I’d love to hear from anyone who has used or intends to use it. I’ve heard that it can be particularly important for children with learning difficulties or special needs, so I’d be interested to hear more about it from that perspective. I hope what I’ve written is interesting and informative if you hadn’t heard of babysigning before. Like I said, I’m no expert, but would be happy to answer more specific questions about our experience if you have any.

One week, five Christmas parties

It was the week before Christmas,

and all through the city,

toddler groups partied with festive songs,

wearing outfits that were oh so pretty.

Well I think my poetry leaves a lot to be desired, but this certainly sums up the week Andrew and I (and Daddy) have just had. It started last Monday morning, when we went to our usual group at Chesterton Children’s Centre. We eased ourselves in gently to the party week, as this was not so much an organised party, but rather the refreshments had a Christmassy feel to them, some of the toddlers wore Christmassy outfits, and we sang Christmas songs at the end. Back home for some lunch and a power nap (Andrew that is), we then headed out to Rhyme time at Barnwell Road library for a proper Christmas singing session. But when we arrived, complete with a tub of oat and banana muffins to share, it came to my attention that the Christmas party was in fact the following Monday! Thankfully I wasn’t the only baby-brained mum who’d got mixed up. Oh well, not to worry, we joined in with the usual, all-seasonal songs.

Playing with (jingle) bells (jingle) bells on Monday morning

Tuesday’s party fun is reported here second hand, because that’s when Daddy and Andrew time happens each week. My two boys toddle off together to Little Music Makers, a music (obviously!) group run by Chesterton Parents’ group. According to my music group correspondent / photographer (aka Tom), great fun was had by all at the Christmas special. There were toys and party food (including some oat and banana muffins – they get everywhere!), as well as the usual singing and dancing (I’ll say more about that in another post sometime). Father Christmas even turned up, with presents for all the little ones. Andrew didn’t seem too fussed either way about this strange man with a white beard in a red cloak, and proceeded to use the nicely wrapped up book he was given as a teething toy!

Meeting Father Christmas - Andrew didn't seem too bothered either way!
Playing in the tent

Wednesday arrived and I woke up feeling excited because I had the afternoon off work so that we could go to the much-anticipated Little Sheep Christmas party. (Before I went back to work, Little Sheep was our regular Wednesday afternoon group – it takes place at Holy Trinity Church (Cambridge), and is a little different from most baby/toddler groups, because as a mum (or dad) you get to do an activity each week like craft, wine tasting, Zumba, hearing a talk, learning infant first aid etc, while your baby has fun with the other babies in the creche provided.) We clearly weren’t the only ones who had heard about how amazing the party would be. When we arrived 10 minutes before the advertised start time, the church hall was already filling up, and I heard later from a friend that the queue to get in just 10 minutes later snaked back into the busy shopping street on which the church is located. As more and more babies and parents/carers/family/friends piled into the hall, the singing began, led by a very enthusiastic lady called Rebecca. There were all sorts of songs – Christmas classics as well as the usual favourites, some of which were adapted to make them more seasonal (I thought ‘Father Christmas had a sack, ho ho ho ho ho… and in that sack he had a cow, ho ho ho ho ho… with a moo moo here and a moo moo there…’ was quite ingenious!). After a couple of quieter songs to finish off with, my friend Cat (who organises Little Sheep) gave a short ‘thought for the day’. She shared with us the lyrics of the song ‘What if God was one of us’ – here are a few lines…

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face? …

If God had a face
What would it look like? …

We (Cat and I, and other Christians) believe that answers to these questions were given over 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born – God’s name is Jesus, and God’s face looked like that of a human baby boy, who grew into a man. That’s the reason for all this celebration at Christmas – all the parties are for Jesus’ birthday! No party is complete without special food and drink, and the Little Sheep party was no exception. There were all sorts of yummy cakes, biscuits and mince pies, as well as some mulled cranberry juice, which we tucked into while the little ones played and the big ones chatted. Father Christmas managed to turn up again; he must be so tired with all this travelling round to different parties every day. Andrew was less impressed this time as I sat him on the big red man’s knee (oh dear!)

Andrew shakering to and me singing 'Away in a manger' (click picture to play video)
Andrew fascinated by Rebecca as she danced around and led the singing (photo courtesy of Hannah Duffy Photography)
More shy on this occasion with Father Christmas - Mummy had to sit in on the photo too (photo courtesy of Hannah Duffy Photography)

Come Thursday we needed a rest from our packed Christmas social schedule, but by Friday we were raring to go again. Andrew and I joined the Cambridge babysigning group a couple of months ago for 5 weeks, but then I went back to work and we couldn’t commit to every week before our routine settled down. (I’ll definitely do a whole post sometime on babysigning.) But Bethan, the tutor, kindly invited us back for the Christmas special. We learnt some seasonal signs like reindeer, sleigh, Father Christmas, angel and Jesus, and had lots of fun singing and signing to Christmassy songs.

Eating Father Christmas' hat at babysigning (I had just offered him some pastry from a mince pie!)

The weekend arrived, along with time for some rest at home. Monday saw the last of our Christmas parties; this week really was the Rhyme time Christmas special. As we entered, damp and soggy from the rain, we were greeted by cheerful Bobby and Ruth, who were dressed up in costume and tinsel. The songs we sang were specially selected for their Christmas theme, and then we heard a story about a pirate (not so Christmassy). After all the musical and rhyming fun, there was plenty of food to share, and Andrew had his usual excitement looking at all the books, which he absolutely loves (clearly my son), and pulling himself up on the perfectly-sized mini cat-face chairs!

Looking at the books after the Barnwell library Rhyme time Christmas special

One week, five parties, many songs, lots of food and stockingfuls of fun! Have you had fun at Christmas parties that you’ve been to? Did Father Christmas turn up at yours too?! (He gets around, you know.) I think it’s fantastic that there are so many parties we can go to in celebration of Jesus’ birthday, because he was a special little baby who went on to do amazing things. This is Andrew’s first Christmas, and he’s certainly had a great introduction to what a fun time of year this is. As he grows up, I’m going to make sure he learns about the reason why he has so much fun at Christmas.

Balancing act

My day starts when our alarm clock (aka Andrew) goes off at about 6am. I get up, play with Andrew for a while before giving him a milk feed around 6.30am, and then it’s family breakfast time at 7am. After that, it’s time to get washed and dressed. When we’re ready, it’s at that point that things have to be done differently depending on the day of the week. My brain is (usually) conscious of the next step:

  • it’s Monday/Friday = no rush, play with Andrew some more before putting him down for a morning nap, then do some things around the flat and get ready to go out for the rest of the morning;
  • it’s Wednesday/Thursday = pack up some lunch for Andrew and myself, put nappies in the change bag, wrap us both up warm in coats/gloves/hats etc., and walk round the corner to Tracy’s (our childminder) to arrive as she’s leaving for the school run at 8.25am, then cycle to the office;
  • it’s Tuesday = leave Andrew in Daddy’s capable hands and head straight off to the office for the morning;
  • it’s Saturday/Sunday = have some family time, then do some housework or go to church.

We’ve been in this routine for over a month now, since I started back at work half-time after 9 months of maternity leave, and it seems to be working. Two and a half days a week I work as a post-doctoral research associate (fancy name for the fact that I do research and have a PhD). I’m based in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge, as the resident phonetician in a lab of psychologists and neuroscientists. The project that I’m working on is looking at how children with a language impairment perceive rhythm and pitch in language and music. I should go into that in detail in another post, but for now I’ll stick to the balancing act of being mum and going out to work.

Before I went on maternity leave, I loved my job and felt very privileged to have been offered it, given the competition for academic jobs when funding is relatively limited. I planned to go back part-time after 9 months, though I found it hard to return once those months were up, because I enjoyed spending so much time with Andrew when on leave. There was a feeling of being torn between two jobs I loved doing, and there still is most days. Being with Andrew all day really makes me happy, but I do see advantages to going out to work too. I thought I’d share some of the things I like and don’t like about splitting my week in half.

At the office I get to drink hot cups of tea, eat my lunch when I like, and there’s not a nappy in sight. As I work in town, it’s very handy to pop out at lunchtime and go shopping for a few bits without the buggy. I have such lovely work colleagues who are great friends and make the office environment a happy, sociable and productive one. It feels good to know that I’m taking part in research that ultimately aims to get to the bottom of something that affects many kids, and one day may make a positive difference in individual lives.

My computer is easy to spot if you know what Praat looks like on screen 😉

People talk about being able to ‘use your brain’ again and get ‘mental stimulation’ at work after having a baby, and that is true to the extent that I get to put to use my ‘training’, i.e. the skills for research that I gained by doing a PhD and continuing in an academic job. But I would say my brain gets put to good use looking after Andrew too. I mean there’s no training for being a mum, so you figure things out as you go along, and that uses a fair amount of brain power I find. All the things that I’ve started to think about and get interested in since having him certainly keep me mentally stimulated. An example is doing my own ‘research’ on baby-related matters, by reading up and talking to other parents about issues like breastfeeding. I can do this either at groups when Andrew is with me and happy to play with the toys and other kids there, or at home when he’s asleep and I need to put my feet up. So I feel like I get enough brain usage on both Andrew days and office days.

Big boy on a trike - at a group where there is a great outdoor play area so Andrew can unleash all his energy

My Andrew days are fantastic because I get to see him develop and start doing things he couldn’t do the week before. He is such a good-natured baby, so I get lots of smiles and cuddles. There’s never a dull moment as he’s so active too, making me and himself laugh at the latest thing he’s managed to find/do/get stuck in or under. We go to fun groups where he can toddle around, play with different toys, sing, hear stories, make things and get messy, whilst I get a cup of tea made for me (which might go cold admittedly) and can chat with other mums (and dads) about the joys and woes of parenthood. I get lots of fresh air and exercise, which comes naturally in our routine because we walk everywhere.

Wrapped up warm for a ride out in the buggy to get to a group

So that’s a lot of good stuff so far. The hard part is having to split my time between the two jobs. I worry that I’ll miss out on one of Andrew’s ‘firsts’, that I’ll be impatient with him because I’m too tired after a day or two in the office, that he’ll miss me either lots or not at all when I’m gone (the former being detrimental to him and the latter to me and my identity as his mum). I also worry that my heart might not stay in my research like it was, that I’ll be too tired to function properly, that I’ll not do my research to the highest standard I set myself. These worries on both sides basically come down to the fact that I’m a perfectionist, and by splitting my resources it might not be possible to do either job at 100%. So far I’m pleased to say that none of these worries have actually been an issue, but they are always in my mind.

Look at me, I'm so good at standing. Mummy loves watching me grow up and do things like this for the first time.

When I think about it, I’m not splitting my week exactly in half. In fact I’m a full-time mum, and always will be, as I do my mum thing before and after going out to the office (including in the middle of the night if he wakes up – what am I supposed to say? ‘sorry Andrew, work tomorrow, no soothing back to sleep for you tonight’); walking out the door to go to work doesn’t stop me being mum. I just do interesting research for about 19 hours a week on top of that. I’m happy with the way things are for now, but it’ll be interesting to see what’s in store for the future, especially as my contract ends in December 2012 (the research one that is – I don’t think Andrew will terminate my contract as mum anytime soon 🙂 )

Andrew loves 'helping' me hang the washing up to dry