Written by Joanne Hinkel
When I registered for a Baby Fingers class, when my firstborn was 6 months old, I never expected signing to become such a powerful force in my early days of parenting — perhaps just as powerful to me as breastfeeding.
There is nothing like the bond between you and your baby when you are signing with each other. Those moments of communication are magical! And so calming and confidence-building for your little one.
I signed up for the Baby Fingers class on a whim really. I saw a flyer for the class at the Prenatal Yoga Center on the Upper West Side, where I had taken prenatal yoga classes while pregnant and then subsequent Baby Yoga classes after Celia was born. I didn’t expect a lot from the course; I really registered just to keep me and Celia active in our daily routine, to get us out of the apartment, since we were home together all week.
I adored the social connection that both Celia and I enjoyed in the class. Lora, a kind, loving, patient teacher, was a calming presence in the often — let’s face it! — anxiety-ridden days of early parenthood. Lora paced her music-filled lessons just right, not giving us too little and not too much to absorb each week, and she was attentive to all of our questions, concerns, and to all of our sweet, sometimes fussy cherubs. I looked forward to seeing these adorable babies each week and for the opportunity to connect with their moms and dads —two moms became close friends; we have seen our firstborns grow up to be 6 years old now!
But where Baby Fingers really paid off was at home. It gave me a focus, a purpose, with Celia, a game for us to play in which I was trying to understand her needs. For weeks and weeks it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, but I stuck with it because it was easy and a fun goal to work toward. I used the signs for “more”, “milk”, “water”, “poop”, “help”, “please”, “sorry”, and “thank you” each time they were appropriate, and Celia would stare intently at me and my hands, as I made the gestures over and over. After just a couple months, though, she started doing the signs — first “more”, then “milk”, and then the others fell in to place. The first time she signed “more” was an ecstatic moment for all of us! My husband and I jumped in the air for joy! Celia’s eyes sparkled with pride. Her smile was beaming. It clicked!
Celia proved to be an early talker. By her first birthday, she could say the word “ball,” “ruff “(for a dog’s noise), and “dada”. By the time she was 14 months, she had about 30 words in her vocabulary. She would continue to sign along with her speaking until she was 2. I have no proof, but I suspect that signing as an infant contributed to her early speaking skills and to her subsequent early literacy. Now, as a 6 year old, she is starting to read chapter books.
When my second daughter, Mae, turned 6 months old, she, Celia (then 4 years old) and I started a Baby Fingers class together. Having Celia there to learn the signs, sing the songs with me and Mae, and then bring those experiences home was truly bonding for all three of us. It was an opportunity for Celia to feel connected to her baby sister and to feel empowered in a shifting family dynamic.
Of course, Mae is a completely different person than her sister, which is often the case with a second child. Since birth she had been quicker to get frustrated and emotional, and also quicker to smile and connect with people. They say second children are often slower to communicate because their older siblings are there to fill in the gaps for them; that certainly was the case with Mae. It took months and months for Mae to start signing back to me, but once she did, when she was about 1 year old, she ran with it.
Signing continues to calm and re-focus Mae when she’s frustrated. Even though she now has words, signing has more power for Mae than words. One day this summer, I found Celia and Mae on the back porch of my mom’s house in Vermont playing tug of war with a toy water bazooka.
“Mae, it’s Celia’s turn right now,” I said. “Mae, we share.”
“No! Mine!” she yelled louder.
“Mae … we share,” and this time I spoke the words slowly as I made the gesture for the sign, a flat vertical palm that moves side to side, while in-between the thumb and index finger of the other hand.
Mae looked at me deeply in the eyes and began to do the sign with me. “Thhhhh-air!” she said gently and backed off, letting Celia hold the toy. Even though she speaks now, my signing to her continues to calm her and re-focuses when she’s frustrated.
Signing built up a trust and confidence in my kids that I can’t entirely explain. I recommend to any and all parents, give it a try! It will make a powerful emotional difference in your experience with your baby. Just stick with it.
Click on the link Mae Milk to see her signing!