Vocal cueing in disabled parenting

Sue Searle, a disabled mother from Stevenage, UK, describes how she developed vocal cues with her three children, and the potential these have for parents with limited mobility, strength or energy.

Imagine the scene. It is nappy changing time. Your baby is lying on the changing mat in front of you and, with a few words of encouragement, rolls over to allow you to change their nappy. With a few more words, your baby rolls back over to allow you to do the nappy up.

Sounds impossible? That is how nappy changes happened with my three children, from the ages of about four months. How? By using vocal cues.

Less pain, less stress

Vocal cues are nothing new in parenting. Most of us have used them. We all remember: “What do you say?” This is just a basic form of vocal cueing. By using similar techniques with gentle physical reinforcement from birth, babies are able to assist their parents with simple tasks.

This can be particularly useful for a parent with limited mobility, strength or energy. I found some parenting tasks very painful, especially lifting the baby to clean the nappy area. This meant that I was stressed and, in turn, my children picked up on my stress and often became fretful. By using vocal cues we were all happy with nappy change time. They instinctively knew what needed to be done and stayed still. Less pain for me … less stress for them.

Although it is called vocal cueing, the same results can be achieved with hand movements or signs.

Some simple tips

The main points to remember are:

  • everyone who does the task needs to do the same thing
  • you need to pick a cue (vocal or sign) that isn’t used in everyday conversation
  • always give lots of praise when you do the task.

The simplest and most useful task I found was helping with nappy changing. For me this involved getting the baby to roll onto their left side. I had the most success with this technique with my youngest child as I had by then convinced more members of my family of the benefits of verbal cueing.

My daughter is now 17 months and is more co-operative than my friends’ children of the same age. On request she fetches her shoes (and puts them on!); gets herself into her buggy; collects a clean nappy and wipes when she is dirty; and waits by the stair gate at bedtime to climb up to bed – all I have to do is supervise her ascent and lift her into her cot. These tasks were all achieved before she was 12 months old.

“Roll baby, roll”

The first step is to agree on the cue. For nappy changing with my children it was “roll baby, roll”. Then every time you (or anyone else) lay the baby on the changing mat, you place your hand on their hip and gently guide the baby onto its side while saying your cue. When they are in the correct position, give your baby lots of praise. If everyone uses the same technique from birth, you should begin to notice that you require less effort to roll the baby onto its side, and as the baby grows you may then progress to just tapping their hip, or even onto just using the cue. My daughter was happily rolling on vocal cue alone by five months, laughing and giggling with anticipation of the tickles she knew she would receive after the job was done.

“Up baby, up”

A variation on the changing roll is getting the baby to help you to lift her while changing a nappy. In this case I used the cue of “up baby, up”, while lifting her to place the nappy under her. After a few months I was able to feel the difference as she was arching her back to help to lift her bottom off the mat. This vocal cue task is also good for helping with dressing.

With other tasks, especially when your baby gets older, it’s more a case of working with what your toddler likes to do. My daughter is the queen of shoes, so it was a natural progression to ask her to fetch her shoes. She is very definite about the pair she wants to wear (a fashion victim already). In this example, we use the tone of voice to cue the request more than the words. It is more hit and miss than baby tasks as her big brothers or shiny things often sidetrack her but we all persevere and things get done, perhaps more slowly than if we did them for her, but she thrives on her independence, as do her brothers.

“In your buggy please!”

Tone of voice is again the main tool for asking my daughter to get into the buggy by herself. As with the shoe task, I have found that a higher pitched sing-song type of voice (both for the task and the praise afterwards) works best for her. (Her oldest brother, on the other hand, preferred almost a whisper.) “In your buggy please!” is the phrase we use and it’s a very pleasing moment when we are getting ready to go out and she toddles off singing to herself and gets into her buggy while I zip up my older toddler’s coat.

Towards independence

Some people may think that this is all too much for such young children, but humans thrive on helping people and gaining praise and respect. I feel that it is just another way our children learn to be independent – similar to potty training or learning to tie their shoelaces. My children are contented, and are happy to be involved in the daily tasks that need to be done. They have their moments and have tantrums like all other children, but they know that when I use a vocal cue and they do what is asked they receive lots of hugs and praise. They get heaps of attention and affection all the time but they always seem so pleased to have been grown-up and helped.

Based on my own experience, therefore, I feel that using vocal cues, even with young babies, can make care tasks much easier for disabled parents. I can imagine that they could help people with a variety of conditions that limit mobility, dexterity or strength. It would be good to hear what other parents think of this.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 57, Winter 2007.


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