Can using Makaton delay speech development?

My baby has just been born with Down’s Syndrome and the pediatrician has suggested I look into using Makaton with her.  I am worried that signing may stop her from trying to talk and was wondering if we should give her a chance to see if she will start talking normally first?

Makaton is a type of unaided (does not require an external tool) Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) that uses basic hand-signs to communicate key words.  It is used to supplement or replace speech for those with impairments in the production or comprehension of spoken language. Sometimes children will know what they want to say but are unable to vocalise it or some children are unable to learn language in the way that others can.  Makaton can reduce the frustration that this causes and helps them to connect with others and build relationships and opportunities.


Using Makaton could be recommended to you to use with your child if they have or are likely to have severely delayed speech.  This is common in children who have learning disabilities and conditions such as Down’s Syndrome or Autism.  However, Makaton can also be used with other children to give them a little extra support during language and literacy development.


You need not worry about Makaton delaying their speech further, as many parents do, as using Makaton is actually more likely to bring about speech earlier.  It encourages communication and is teaching them important language skills.  As every word is backed-up with a visual sign it makes it easier for children to understood and learn, which in turn will speed up the development of language for children with speech delay.


As children grow they will start to depend on the Makaton signs less and less and they will naturally drop the sign as they learn to use words.  However, it can still be useful to use with children during stressful or exciting situations as it can calm and focus them.  It can also be used to introduce more complex abstract concepts e.g. days of the week, colours or emotions.  Some children with more severe learning disabilities may never develop verbal language. For them Makaton may be used their whole lives or is a great foundation for them to develop a more complex communication system later in life.


When you first find out that your child has a learning disability or is not developing like other children it can take a long time to come to terms with.  Some parents/carers can be put off using Makaton as they see it as a physical manifestation of the child’s differences they are not yet ready to deal with it.  However, it is really important to realise that the earlier you start to use Makaton with your child the better it will be for them.  It can stop them from feeling frustrated and isolated that can later develop into behavioral and emotional problems.  Other parents/carers can be put off because learning sign language can seem like a daunting task.  However, you do not have to learn every sign used in Makaton before you start to use it with your child.  You just need to follow their lead and learn around 10 signs at a time.


Top Tips when using Makaton

  1. Try to make it fun: learn signs for the things your children want, not just what they need.  You could watch Mr Tumble who is a fun TV character that communicates with Makaton signs on his show.
  2. Give lots of encouragement and praise: especially when your child uses the signs appropriately.
  3. Sign as often as you can: teach the signs to others who are close to your child so they can use them to.
  4. Always say the word as you are signing it
  5. Don’t get disheartened: it may take a while to see the benefits but it will be worth it!


If you are still unsure about using Makaton and want to know more you can contact one of the team at Integrated Treatment Services by calling 0845 838 2921 where a specialist speech and language therapist can explain the process in more detail.  You could also arrange for one of our therapists to come and give you a crash course in Makaton and how to use it most effectively with your child.  Alternatively, if you have a quick question you can email: or simply click ‘Ask us a Question’.


July 2013

Laura Oldakowska

Speech and Language Therapist

© Flickr: Image Credit: by chokole – CC Licensed


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