Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

May 2, 2011

Signing "Baby"

When our little one was checked over in the NICU by a developmental pediatrician several days after she was born, the doctor made two recommendations.  The first was that we enroll Rachel in some sort of preschool by the time she was 2 1/2.  The second was that we introduce sign language to her as the doctor found that children with Down syndrome are able to sign before they can speak, and signing alleviates a lot of frustration on the part of the child as well as the parents. 

With all the concern about oxygen levels and feedings, I filed those tidbits away under: “We shall see”.   However, when my daughter was just under 2 years old, I was reading her a book about animals.  I went through all the pages:  “There’s a doggie. Woof! Woof! There’s a kitty cat. Meow! Meow!” And then came a rabbit.  Not knowing what a rabbit might say, I made bunny ears with my fingers, started bouncing them up and down and said, “It’s a bunny. Hop! Hop! Hop!”  Then we put the book away.

Now, I have to say, at this point in time I wasn’t sure my daughter comprehended any nouns. I’d show her flashcards and try to get her to point at things, and she wasn’t able to at all.  But several days after showing her that book– just one time– she pulled all the books off the shelf. (And I’m a librarian, as you know, so my kids probably had about a hundred books on that shelf.) She rifled through them and picked out the book with the bunny.  She then flipped through the pages to the bunny picture, turned to me with her fingers bouncing up and down in the air and said, “Ah, ah, ah”.

This might not seem like a big deal for most parents, but when your child has been mostly non-verbal and you have no idea if she really comprehends anything, it was an extremely special moment.  Just the act of looking me in the eye and making the sign** – and not just making the sign but vocalizing as well - it’s hard to describe how huge that was for me.  It felt like the scene in The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller’s world is finally unlocked as Annie Sullivan signs “Water” into her hand.  With a way to communicate, you get a glimpse into the child’s thoughts, feelings and interests.  And the sparkle in my daughter’s eyes assured me that she enjoyed this new way of connecting as well.  I immediately looked up the American Sign Language signs for the other animals in the book, and it wasn’t long before she knew them all. 

We began to introduce signs for all the important things in her life:  food, milk, Mommy, Daddy, sleep, more, help, etc.  Mostly she picked them up after being shown them only a couple of times.  Naturally her fine motor skills made it difficult to form the signs perfectly, but just as parents understand their toddler’s early speech, we knew what she was trying to say.  When she started at a preschool at about 2 1/2 years of age (yes, we had decided to follow the doctor’s advice again!), we were asked to make a list of the signs our daughter knew.  If I were to have guessed, I might have said she knew about 25, but when my husband wrote them all down and we counted them, we found she knew more than 60 signs.

The speech-language pathologist we work with has said that the first signs Rachel knows will be the first words she says.  We have found this to be true in our case.  Now three, our daughter will try to vocalize words as much as possible unless she physically can not, and then she will try to sign.  Our son has picked up all the signs as well, so he always knows exactly what she wants.  It really has been an amazing tool for our family.

I find we talk more to her now; after all, it’s difficult to keep talking to someone who doesn’t respond.  You know that you should, but somehow, when it is clear that you are being understood and you get a response, it’s easier to keep it up.  We also quickly find out when she doesn’t quite understand something, like when she saw a squirrel and signed “dog”.  We can then say the correct word and help her learn more vocabulary.  Just recently she has started making her dolls sign.  This imaginative play is such an important milestone, and if she didn’t have the ability to sign, we might not have realized that she was capable of this.

I love knowing what’s happening inside her mind, what she wants, and what she notices.  It’s also pretty incredible to be able to tell her I love her and have her sign it back.  One day I expect she won’t sign anymore, but for now, it is a really positive mode of communication. 

And preschool is going pretty fabulously too.  It seems the doctor was right!

**This was not the official ASL sign for rabbit, but we continue to use it!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle May 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm

My 5 year old daughter has Downs and she started signing as well. It was amazing! I’m now happy to say she is now very verbal … and with speech therapy she is working hard at being understood much of the time.

You should be very proud of your daughter’s success with signs!


Heather May 3, 2011 at 6:20 am

Thanks Michelle! That’s wonderful your daughter is speaking so well now! I find every milestone is very exciting!


Maureen Braun May 10, 2011 at 10:19 am

I think signing is amazing for so many reasons….
My grandies signed when they were little. Wish I had done that with my kids.


joe July 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm

great post Heather! I love hearing about how your daughter is doing- you have an amazing family and can’t wait to hear more


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