With sign language, babies get their message across loud and clear
SUMMIT POINT – For newborns, fussing is the way to communicate basic needs: Change my diaper, feed me, burp me, hold me, I’m SO sleepy. When babies get a little older, though, making their needs known is not always that simple.
Older babies can point or make noise, but they might not get the message through. And when they do start talking, much of what they say is difficult-to-decipher gibberish.
Parents who want to help their babies communicate a little sooner are turning to baby sign language.
Jane Carter of Charles Town offers a free baby sign language story hour at South Jefferson Public Library in Summit Point at 10:30 a.m. the second Saturday of each month. The story hours have been on hiatus through the summer, but will start again in September.
“I’ve had people bring their babies in the little carrier,” Carter said, explaining that many parents want to learn the signs early so that they are ready to use them with their babies soon as the infants are receptive.
She said many parents want to continue to expose their children to sign language, even after they do begin to talk verbally – so children up to age 12 are welcome at the story hour as well.
“Goodnight Moon,” the 1947 Margaret Wise Brown classic, and holiday-themed books are just a few of her selections.
“It’s fun because they’re enjoying it,” she said. “Just the look on their faces shows it. They are so excited when they know the sign to sign along with you.”
Carter, a former middle school teacher, bought a book to teach herself some sign language before her own children were born.
She ended up having twins – a girl and a boy – and because her daughter has Down syndrome, her doctor strongly suggested that the family learn sign language to help her communicate.
Most of the time parents teach their babies signs about food – “more,” “please” and “thank you” – because eating looms so large in an infant’s world.
Others start with a few animal signs, perhaps the sign for a stuffed animal that the baby likes. In the case of Carter’s daughter, food signs meant little because she had a G-tube for nourishment. The little girl did love to be tickled, though, so she learned how to sign “more tickle.”
Now Carter’s daughter, age 4, has a sign vocabulary of 200 to 300 words, including colors, letters, feelings and animals. “It has given us insight into what she is thinking that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Carter said.
Her son, who is a typically developing boy, also picked up sign language quickly, initially doing signs to request milk and water. Later, he used sign language to let his mother know about a toothache. By teaching babies the American Sign Language signs such as “hurt,” “hot,” and “cold,” little ones sick or in pain can help their parents figure out what’s wrong.
Many different types of baby sign language programs and products such as posters displaying commonly used signs are available for parents who are interested in bringing sign into their homes. Some programs use the standard American Sign Language
vocabulary while others
fer modified signs, Carter said.
Her program, Baby Signing Time, uses ASL vocabulary. A Signing Time Academy certified master instructor, she also offers workshops for preschools.
“It’s easier to have a quiet classroom when kids are signing,” she said.
Donna Day, 50, of Inwood, also teaches baby sign language locally. She is completely deaf, but she reads lips and has some hearing thanks to a hearing aid.
“Because I’m hearing impaired myself, I really have trouble understanding kids,” said Day, whose hearing impairment was diagnosed at age 3.
She had heard about baby sign language and wanted to try the method with her grandchildren so that she could bond with them – and has been impressed with the results.
“Nicky is 3 and talks like a 10-year-old,” she said of her grandson, who picked up baby sign language successfully and now seems to have a greater vocabulary in his spoken communication later as well.
If he wants chocolate milk, he just signs to her that he wants it.
Day, who is a certified baby sign language instructor, has been teaching it in Virginia for three years. More recently, she started offering classes in Berkeley County.
She uses the Baby Signs Inc. program. According to babysigns.com, the research-based baby sign language program was founded by doctors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, who began their first study in the 1980s.
“Baby Signs is about keeping it simple,” said Day, explaining that some of the first words that little signers master are “eat,” “sleep,” “milk,” “more” and “all done.”
For example, a parent would say aloud, “Do you want milk?” and at the same time, make the sign for “milk.” Ideally, the baby would sign back “milk” if she’s interested in the beverage or, if she’s satisfied already, the sign for “all done.”
In the period before the baby can verbally ask for more milk, Day said this form of communication can make both moms and babies happier. “It’s never too early to start,” she said.
Some parents worry that their children might not learn to speak as fast if they use baby sign language, but Day said that is not the case.
“It’s not going to stop the babies from talking,” she said. In fact, some research indicates a tie between babies who sign and a richer vocabulary – and higher IQ scores – later on.
Several celebrities including Tia Mowry-Hardrict from the 1990s show “Sister, Sister,” use baby sign language. On her Style Network reality series, “Tia & Tamera,” Mowry-Hardrict was shown signing with her son, Cree.
She blogged on the Style Network site: “Cree really loves to do the sign language for ‘milk.’ Even though a baby can’t communicate verbally, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t or don’t understand you. Taking a sign language class really allowed me to see that.”
Day has noticed that more parents are gravitating toward baby sign language. When she is out in public, she said she increasingly spots parents signing with their babies.
“It’s been wonderful,” Day said of her experience as a Baby Signs teacher. “I’ve seen a lot of moms happier with their babies.”
Want to know more?
• Find Donna Day’s upcoming events and contact information for in-home instruction at babysignsprogram.com/withdonna.
• Contact Jane Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org or at signsofyouth.com
• Baby sign language videos may also be checked out at South Jefferson Public Library, located at 49 Church St. in Summit Point.
To learn more about what’s available as well as the free sign language story times for children that resume next month, go to library’s website at sojeffersonlibrary.com or call 304-725-6227.