How do you get your baby to communicate? MAXINE GORDON reports on a hands-on method

MOVING her hand from side to side, Natalie Bell waves to each baby in the room, calling out their names in a cheery, welcoming song.

All eyes are on Natalie as she tells them about today's "adventure" - a teddy bear's picnic. As she talks, Natalie backs up the key words with hand signals - for "food" she taps her fingers to her mouth; for "drink" she makes a C shape with her hand; for biscuits, she points to her elbow.

There are 150 core signs in baby sign language, but the mums and tots at the TinyTalk class in York are learning the basics.

York mum Bridget Walters has been bringing her 12-month-old son Toby to the class for six weeks. She said: "Toby definitely recognises some signs; he understands food and drink when I sign those."

Rachel Wright's son Zachary is 16 months old and is confidently signing for "ducks" and "milk" now. "It's so good he can do the milk sign because it is good to know that's what he wants. When we go to the park, he is really interested in the ducks. It's great to see the look on his face, that he is being understood. It's really helpful."

Class leader Natalie is having equal success with her own son, William, who is 15 months old. He loves to sign different animals and can do the sign for outside, letting her know he wants to go out to play. She said homework pays off. "The more you do at home, the quicker they pick it up."

Experts say that although babies can't talk until they are about 18 months old, because their vocal chords aren't sufficiently developed, they are capable of communicating their needs and thoughts from around six months.

If they are taught to do this using signs, research shows that they are happier and more confident, generally cry less, and have fewer temper tantrums.

Studies show that babies who sign start to talk sooner too - which is a great incentive for parents to practice in their own time.

Natalie, a former drama teacher, said: "Signs are much easier to learn than the spoken word. Signing can help babies explain what they want and what they need at a younger age. This helps remove the frustration felt by all young children when they cannot make themselves understood."

Classes are built around a range of musical, action songs, sensory activities and free play. They are suitable for all babies aged between three and 18 months.

A mum teaches her baby a simple sign at a TinyTalk class in York

On our visit, Natalie led the parents on a "bear hunt"; the adults carrying their children in convoy as Natalie recited the exciting children's tale and led them in a circle dance around the room.

The class offers parents a chance to meet one another and make friends too.

Bridget said: "It's a nice group. Everyone is friendly and the format is great. There are songs and actions and a drink and snack too. Everyone has a nice time."

Tips for baby signing success: Begin with basics such as more, finished, eat, drink/milk, ideally starting at six to nine months.

Follow your baby's lead: watch to see what interests your baby and introduce signs you think your baby might want to say.

Always say the word as you sign - never sign in silence.

Speak slowly but in a natural way.

Keep it simple, use just one sign per sentence.

Be patient and relaxed - and give lots of praise.

TinyTalk will be running six-week signing courses over summer, from early July to mid-August at the Westfield Children's Centre on Tuesday morning and Knavesmire Children's Centre on Wednesday afternoon. The price for the course is £24. Find out more from Natalie on 07479 488699/w: tinytalk.co.uk/natb and e: natb@tinytalk.co.uk