Lockdown helped my baby learn to sign

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In this article, Elise Stirling, an autism specialist teacher, shares how lockdown helped her family bond with her newborn child, and how Makaton signing is helping baby Saria communicate

Saria was six months old when she signed her first sign – Daddy. After three months of pandemic-related lockdown with our family, she showed exactly how much she had been taking in from her surroundings, and demonstrated her priorities loud and clear. Daddy, More, Yes and Bobo (milk) were her first signs, which she ‘shouts’ with great fervour and frequency. Unexpectedly, this vital time in our baby’s life has been boosted enormously by the constant presence of her immediate family due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Where in normal circumstances her father would be working full time, and siblings would be at school all day, lockdown measures meant that we were all together, all the time.

Saria’s big sisters, Alyssa and Tabitha, are both autistic and, although verbal, have been using Makaton signing for the last 5 years. Makaton is a simple yet effective key-word signing system used alongside the spoken word for all ages and abilities as an alternative or augmentative communication (AAC) tool, most often for children with additional needs and disabilities. Makaton Signing for Babies (MSB) can be encouraged for all babies whether they have additional needs or not. As the sibling of two children with autism, Saria has an increased likelihood of also being autistic and therefore may also require support using AAC. This, however, was not the primary motivation for Saria learning to sign.

As an autism specialist teacher and avid Makaton user myself, signing has come naturally to us as a family. Saria was therefore ‘born into’ Makaton. We started actively signing with her when she was three and a half months old, just before lockdown began. Everyone was encouraged to use Makaton with and around her. She was fascinated, and watched people’s hands almost as much as she watched their faces, even on video chats. I also signed us up for a MSB class for babies and young children. When she was 5 months old, Saria started to wave, her first deliberate gesture, and the reciprocal signing relationship with her family began! Research shows that before babies talk, they are likely to regularly exchange gestures, eye contact and sounds. Typically, there are quantitative and qualitative differences in the exchanges between the baby, their mother and their father, but the time spent on joint attention activities with parents under the age of 18 months is indicative of subsequent development of vocabulary.

We cannot say for sure, obviously, whether or not this would have happened if Saria was born at another time, with no pandemic, and no lockdown. However, the lockdown’s beneficial socio-emotional effects between Saria and her other family members have been clear. A natural conclusion to be drawn from observing her speedy development may be that the cosy close quarters of lockdown have boosted not only her immersion of verbal and non-verbal language, but also that Saria’s attachment bonds with her immediate family are extra strong as a result.

The human brain has a knack for adapting to the circumstances it finds itself in, which can work either for or against the developing baby. Daily interactions with babies are how parents and other caregivers can help to develop the baby’s brain in a positive way. Responsive parenting will build vital connections in the brain, creating secure attachments and setting them up for a lifetime of positive relationships.

In the case of autism, this may look different (using AAC for example), but it is the responsivity that is key and “warm attentive parents will repeatedly activate the release of [oxytocin], creating a secure bond with their child” (Sunderland). These ‘happy hormones’ relating to attachment and bonding also help with the development of the frontal lobes of the baby’s brain, creating neural pathways that underpin language learning and development.

Between three and nine months, the anterior cingulate, a part of the brain associated with responsivity to social cues, starts to develop, which gives babies greater capacity for reciprocity, language and non-verbal communication (Schore). Relationships, communication and language are so closely related that they often overlap with each other, which is unsurprising considering the commonalities and shared goals. The interrelatedness lies in the organisation of the brain, as the same circuits are used for both social perception and interpersonal communication (Roseman).

Saria’s sisters have been by her side, day in and day out, for four months during this critical period of development. Often siblings’ impact on development is underestimated, but it is not only adult caregivers that participate in many day-to-day interactions, siblings often play a significant role. Even when her sisters were not communicating directly with her, perhaps speaking or signing to others in the family, they were influencing her capacity to communicate with them (Topping, Dekhinet and Zeedyk).

So it would seem to be that, as babies’ brains mature most rapidly between three and six months of age, it was serendipitous for Saria’s development that she was essentially primed for optimum nurturing during the unanticipated and widely unwelcomed lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the age of seven months, against all odds, she can use a range of signs that communicate her needs and wants and enjoy a reciprocal relationship with those close to her. Who knows whether this development would have come about sooner or later in other circumstances, but given the literature it stands to reason that the close quarters of the lockdown, the strong responsive and nurturing relationships developed during this time, and the everyday use of Makaton has boosted in a sense the natural path that she would have taken in her language and communication development.

While lockdown has (presumably) been a one-in-a-lifetime situation, what can we take away from this experience? Drawing together literature from language development, human relationships, and AAC use, it might appear that using Makaton signing with babies to nurture a responsive relationship and strong attachment bonds, may enhance a baby’s ability to learn sign-supported language. Whether or not they go on to speak verbally (in the case of children with a higher likelihood of being autistic), the young child will have an AAC tool for communicating with parents, carers and siblings as well as potentially reaping the benefits of secure attachments with caregivers and well-developed brain architecture going forward.

Sources

Ford, J. (2006) Enhancing Parent and Child Communication: Using Makaton Signing for Babies. Makaton Charity.

Harris, J. (2015) Chapter 6: Autism Spectrum Disorder. In Zigmund, M., Rowland, L. and Coyle, J. (Eds). Neurobiology of Brain Disorders: Biological Basis of Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders. Academic Press, London.

Roseman, M. (2008) Early Language Development and Adult/Child Relationships: An Intricate Connection. In Jalongo, M.R. (Ed) Enduring Bonds: The Significance of Interpersonal Relationships on Young Children’s Lives. Springer, Indiana PA.

Schore, A. (2014) Early interpersonal neurobiological of attachment and autism spectrum disorders. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1049.

Sunderland, M. (2007) What every parent needs to know. Dorling Kindersley, London.

Topping, K., Dekhinet, R. and Zeedyk, S. (2013) Parent-infant interaction and children’s language development. Educational Psychology, 33(4), 391-426.

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