Do We Really Need Makaton?

Depending on where you live in the world, you will most likely be recommended to begin to use a system of signing when your child with additional needs is young. 

It's not unusual for parents to question the usefulness of Makaton

Portage workers advised us to use Makaton with Natty, but I had very mixed feelings about it at first. This is just our experience, every child's journey is different, but it might answer some questions you have if you're new to signing.

What is Makaton and how can it help you child?

When our eldest was born I knew baby signing was a good idea in theory, but didn't get any further than buying a few books with baby signs in them. She was quick to learn to speak and the need to sign passed.

However, when Natty was born and Down's syndrome was identified, Makaton was suggested. Makaton is a language programme using signs and symbols to aid communication. 

Initially, I questioned whether this was necessary. Was it really essential for Natty's language development? I think I was in denial that she would need additional help at first, and the thought that she might need to use signs to communicate frightened me a little if I'm honest.

Using Makaton can help the whole family communicate

I also remember wondering if maybe the Makaton would actually delay her speech development. I hear a lot of parents ask the same question, worried in case the signs would be learnt instead of the spoken word. 

Luckily, my days as a teacher of English to speakers of other languages had taught me that the one way to help adults memorise new vocabulary was by doing as many actions as possible to embed new words. Doing 2 things at once can only enhance and accelerate language learning.

Imagine that you're at a party. You are introduced to someone new. They tell you their name, 'Hello, I'm Hayley.' Instantly forgotten.

But imagine that this Hayley trills 'Hello, I'm Hayley', whilst simultaneously jumping in the air and clapping her hands. Would you be so likely to forget her name then?

It's the same reason we learn lyrics to songs more easily than the same words written down in bland text on white paper. It's called kinesthetic learning and children with Down's syndrome tend to be kinesthetic learners. They work best when all the senses are involved.

In short, Makaton supports, backs up, speeds up and develops language learning for children with speech delay. It gives two different types of input for every word, which should always be said clearly as well as signed. It's an extra hook to hang the word on if you like. 

You don't have to learn a lot of signs at once, because your child will let you know what they want to say, and you will only need 5-10 or so words at a time, so don't be daunted or put off. 

Natty's first signed words were 'Mum', 'Dad', 'Cake' and 'Chocolate'... quickly followed by 'Chocolate cake!' coupled with a fervent pointing motion at the treats cupboard!

So when I had accepted our daughter's needs and pursuaded myself that Makaton really was the right thing to try after speaking to several parents and professionals, we began in earnest. 

I can't recall exactly how old she was then, around 18 months, or 2 years old I guess. But here is the next vital point about signing to your child. It will reduce the frustration of the toddler years. This applies to all children, but if your child has language delay and knows what they want to say to you and can't vocalise it they will become frustrated. Very frustrated. Can you imagine being 3 years old and wanting a glass of water and not being able to communicate it? Teaching them to sign these vital needs will not only ease frustration for you both, but will also likely bring about the speech you all crave sooner than not using signs at all.

And the beauty of it all is that when your youngster masters a word, they naturally drop the sign. They drop it of their own accord, you don't have to worry or interfere. Signing will not delay or prevent your child from speaking. If your child doesn't verbalise, they still have the benefit of the signs.  

There are lots of resources out there to help your child learn Makaton

Natty still reintroduces signs if she is super excited or in a new situation where she needs comfort. If she is over stimulated or being a bit naughty, signing to her focuses her, calms her down and makes her listen to what is being said to her.

We use Makaton a lot for more abstract concepts these days, such as colours, emotions and currently Days of the Week. This will continue as long as Natty needs new ideas explaining to her.

So, give it a go. Don't be afraid and don't feel overwhelmed, you don't need to learn a lot at once. Seek support if you need it, and learn to love Makaton.

After all, without it, how else can you sign across a crowded room to your Mum that you need the toilet, or indicate to her that you want a drink when your mouth is too full of food to talk.

And how else can you emotionally blackmail a parent when they leave for work, unless you can sign 'sad' doefully out of the window as they drive away... 

It seems that yes, we do need Makaton.

Find something that engages your child with Makaton

Where to Have Makaton Fun

  • Visit the Makaton Charity website or Facebook page which has free downloads, books to buy and videos to watch. They have a fun Sign of the Week section too.
  • Check out Singing Hands who make fabulous DVDs that children find irresistible. You'll find yourself singing along too! Or you might be lucky enough to find a copy Dave Benson Phillips Makaton Nursery Rhymes which Natty still loves to this day!
  • Ask your local Speech Therapist, Social Worker or Portage Worker about Makaton courses near you. Your local support group might even run free sessions.
  • Introduce your child to Mr Tumble and Something Special to get them interested in signing. It's also available to watch online.
  • You could even hang a Makaton calendar in your kitchen and learn a new sign each month together. The ones from Shabang are lovely!
  • Bring Makaton into everyday situations and build it into your school productions too. It can be a really inclusive tool to help everyone communicate together. This Nativity play comes complete with Makaton symbols and music. 


  1. We did baby signs with Blondie Boy and he was able to tell us things LONG before he could verbalize them. It hasn't impacted his speech in anyway and I'm so glad we did it!

    I worked with children with special needs so I knew the benefit of signing for children who can't verbalize their needs or who just respond better to visual cues than audio cues.

    I had a speech therapist look down her nose at me at a weaning fayre when I said we were doing baby signs and I think that is ridiculous. Blondie Boy didn't have any speech issues but I think signing helped him and certainly me LOADS!

    Whether you have a typical child or a child with special needs why wouldn't you want them to be able to let you know what they want or need whether than is verbally or through signing?

    Sorry if this comment is a novel!

    PS: Do you know you have captcha turned on your comments? Here is how to turn it off: Turn Off Captcha

    1. Thank you for this lovely feedback. What on earth is Captcha???

    2. I've tweeted you sing (or sign!) if you need help!

  2. Ever since I first learnt Makaton as an 18 year old volunteering at a Mencap Gateway club I could see the value of it. When my daughter was born we joined a local baby signing class (doing a mixture of Makaton and BSL) and that class gave me the confidence to go ahead and sign with her. It also introduced us to Mr Tumble (now hard to believe that my life at one point didn't involve Justin!) and from there and the supporting materials our signing has flourished. My daughter was talking quite early, but I feel that the Makaton helped her to do that. Even now there are some words that she still signs whilst saying them and when she's getting some words confused signing can help make sure that we both are on the same wavelength. With baby number 2 due any day I'll definitely be signing with him or her from birth and I also hope that my daughter will communicate with the baby through Makaton too.

  3. Great to hear your positive experiences of using Makaton. I love it -have seen it work wonders for so many kids (I also find it useful for communicating with my husband if he's across a crowded room!)

  4. Neither of mine spoke particularly early but Littler was rather late in getting around to talking - signing is brilliant, it cut through a lot of the frustration and even now when excited they'll sign please / more / cake

    I think it rocks

    Coolest thing ever is a teacher friend of mine who teaches in a school for children with hearing issues where all the staff sign as they talk - even out for dinner she signs, it is beautiful to watch

  5. I so agree signing has made all the difference to Sammy, he has bilateral hearing aids because of glue ear which hopefully he will grow out of eventually along with Down Syndrome but he has managed to learn a huge ammount of signs from watching Mr Tumble and I've been on a couple of courses, he will even make up his own signs for things like TV shows he likes. His signing has dropped off a little now as he is verbalising more but he still uses it when he can't get his point across. I use it alot when giving instructions or options it seems to make it so much easier for him.It's been fun for the whole family although Daddy is always asking for the signs for things but Sammy is happy to show him what they are :)
    Sammy's new favorite one is 'trick' which says it all really :)

  6. I am a BSL translator for my work and oddly enough - found the baby signing classes bizarre as so many signs are different to British Sign Languge. When you're used to doing it one way every day, it's very hard to change. I showed Grace BSL rather than babysign or Makaton - but results are pretty incredible whichever way of signing works for you x

  7. My brother has Down's Syndrome coupled with learning difficulties which means that he continues, at 20 years old, to have difficulty in expressing himself verbally. Makaton has made a profound difference to his ability to communicate and has even provided an extra bonding point between him and my children - they love it that 'Uncle Sam' joins in when they're watching Mr Tumble!

  8. I first was exposed to Makaton when working as a special needs carer. My kids (and adults) all had physical as well as intellectual challenges and we had to modify signs or create our own to get around limbs that did what they wanted when they wanted etc.

    When Joseph was born I knew I wanted to introduce signing early on. We had been told that Joseph's speech would be delayed due to his severe prematurity, so I wanted to give him the best start possible.

    We found that we didn't need the signing long! I am sure the signing flicked a switch somewhere and by 18 months corrected, although he wasn't walking he was talking in single words and a couple of pairs too.

    I love signing because its fun, achievable and thanks to Mr Tumble, god bless his spotty heart, becoming mainstream.

  9. As a Makaton tutor and a speech and language therapist i have had the privilege of working with so many folk for whom makaton has opened up a world of interaction, choice and chat
    i can honestly say that in 20 years of signing and symbol use makaton only ever benefits - and mr tumble is a hero for brining it to the masses in such a visual and vibrant way
    we now run week intensive makaton courses for users of learning disability services, their families and paid carers which we have called " signsational" .. such is the enthusiasm and celebration of signing together

  10. My daughter (born prematurely with mild CP) and I have been doing baby signing since she was 1 and developed some dexterity with her hands. It took a while to pick up, but at around 21 months we had an explosuion from signs and are now carrying on using Makaton as we have "grown out" of the baby classes. It has heralded her first word "star" just shy of 2 years old, a moment I thought was a long way off. I love signing. I never thought I would, and I do think the popularity of baby signing has helped to soften taking on extra things, but I am a convert and only going forwards with it now! x

  11. I am quite looking forward to learning Makaton with my son, I believe it will benefit me also. I have a mild hearing imparement and have hearing aids for both ears, my concern is not that my son will not be able to communitcate, but that I may not be able to hear / understand. My mum is now very deaf and I believe this will also happen to me. it will be lovely for my son to communicate with his Grandma also. we have already been using some basic signs and at 8 months Alexander can sign for his bottle :)

  12. bloodstone_angel3 February 2014 at 12:05

    its not just for little kids to learn. i came across makaton at 17 years old, by which time i could speak, and had often been told i am extremely eloquent and capable. the real issue was that everything i could say, was scripted, and my understanding was very minimal, and while i had enough scripts to cover most of daily life, i would regularly be left unable to say anything if conversation went outside of my scripts. when i found makaton no-one else around me understood it, as my ASD diagnosis was given late (according to the health visitor, girls don't get autism) so i didn't grow up with the special needs community. makaton gave me a clear, word for word translation between sounds, which are confusing for me, and images which fit easily into my thought patterns, which are largely pictures anyway. it gave me a way to get the pictures in my thoughts into spoken word with little more than a few seconds delay, rather then hours or days when i had no direct link between words and pictures. the improvement in my life has been massive, and rapid.


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