Lots of people communicate with their babies before their child even speaks – you can too!
Your baby – not quite a year old – is crying. You don’t know what is wrong. “Mommy, I’m thirsty,” he tells you. “More milk.” What is this, talking coming from such a wee one? Must be a wunderkind, you say. Actually the smart one in this example is the parent who has learned to communicate with her child before he is able to speak. She is using basic signs to “talk” with her child long before the baby can verbalize his needs using words.
Imagine the advantage of having a way to communicate with your child before he can vocalize his needs. Your child can tell you if he is hungry, has an earache or just wants to be held – long before he descends into the fussiness or crying that he uses to communicate now.
Babies and Signing. Something New?
Sign language, of course, is nothing new. It has been around informally throughout history as a way to communicate with the deaf and was first standardized in Italy in the 16th century.
What is new, however, is parents using sign language to communicate with their children. As the many benefits for this are being uncovered, the number of parents signing with their babies is growing rapidly in the United States and abroad.
Children usually begin saying their first words between 10 months and 1 year, with more developed language skills not kicking in until 18 months. In large part, this is due to their immature vocal cords and simply being physically unable to form words.
No doubt you’ve seen that babies can understand language (“Give mommy the spoon”) before they can talk and are capable of following simple commands at an early age. What’s exciting for parents who sign is that as their baby’s manual dexterity and coordination develops, the child can begin reciprocating communication, long before he can say the actual words.
Tim and Tera Liescheidt began showing a basic sign, “milk,” to their son, Isaac, when he was about 7 months old. After about six weeks, Isaac began making the sign – a simple one-handed gesture which imitates milking a cow – back to them.
“We weren’t really sure what to expect when we started,” says Tera. “But when we got a response, it was really exciting. Once he started doing that, we introduced a couple of others: the signs for ‘more,’ ‘eat,’ and ‘all done.'”
Little Ike loved the “more” sign best of all, and began using it for everything – food first, then games and tickling, etc.
“Using these signs really made life easier,” says Tera. “Isaac could communicate to us when he was hungry or thirsty well before he would get to the fussy stage. The level of frustration was so much less for all of us.”
On the Market
Though there are several products that offer guidance to parents in teaching sign language to their infants, the most popular one is one called Sign with Your Baby (www.sign2me.com).
The Sign with your Baby program evolved from research by Joseph Garcia, who in his studies had tried to determine the age at which an infant could engage in expressive communication and to see how signing could fit into that process.
Garcia’s fascination with the topic came after a visit to the family of a deaf friend. While there, he saw a baby about 10 months old communicating with his parents in a much more sophisticated way than other hearing children of the same age with hearing parents.
This led Garcia to base the program on a system of standard signs that come from American Sign Language. Other programs, such as Baby Signs (focusites.com/babysigns) encourage parents to improvise signs that make sense to them and their baby, rather than trying to learn a standard set of signs.
A common question parents have is if kids learn to communicate through signing, won’t that limit their desire to speak in later months?
A group of Ohio State University (OSU) researchers studying signing with infants and toddlers at OSU’s Infant-Toddler Laboratory School found no indication of delayed verbal communication.
“We absolutely haven’t seen that at all,” says Kimberlee Whaley, an associate professor of human development and family science. “What we found is that their first spoken words are usually words they had already learned to sign. As the children learn to speak more words, their use of signs fades away.”
Additionally, other studies show that 3- and 4-year-old children exposed to signing from an early age typically had higher IQ, larger vocabularies and engaged in more sophisticated play than their peers.
Naturally, having smarter kids is something that every parent wants. That’s icing on the cake though when compared to the relief of simply being able to understand why your 15-month-old won’t stop crying and then being able to make it better.
Tips for Parents
Tera offers a numbers of recommendations from her experience to parents who want to teach signs to their baby:
1. Start out simple. “Isaac only used four signs regularly, but that
was enough to make a real impact,” she says. “I’d definitely stress quality over quantity. We just didn’t see the need to teach him dozens of signs.”
2. Be consistent in presenting signs at every opportunity. Tera stresses the importance of continuing offering signs to your baby, even if he doesn’t seem to be responding. “When we first started trying to teach signs, I didn’t have a clue if it was working,” says Tera. “But then,
after a while when he started doing them back, I knew he had been watching us all along.”
3. Involve everyone in the baby’s life in teaching signs. Ike had six people showing him the same signs in different situations – grandparents, Mom, Dad, plus his aunt who watched him each day and her 3-year old daughter. “I am convinced that it helped Isaac’s understanding of communication to have these different people showing him the same signs for the same things,” says Tera. “He understood that he could communicate to people when he was hungry or needed something.”
David Fiedler is a freelance writer.
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