Just a few weeks ago, I helped to teach my four-month-old nephew, Henry, sign language without even thinking about it. While on vacation, my sister (his mom) and I were playing in the water with Henry, and he slapped the water with his hand. The cool lake water hit his face and made him laugh. His mom and I both said, “Pat, pat,” as he splashed his hand in the water over and over. Later he used the same motion to pat his mom’s face, and they both smiled at this gesture of affection between them.
As a parent or care-giver to a baby, you also may already be using signs without realizing it. When saying rhymes or singing songs with finger or hand movements (for example “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “Wheels on the Bus”), you are actually helping your child learn signs that they can use at other times.
I’ve always been fascinated with baby signing, so to learn more about it, I turned to Anne Gray, a St. Louis mom and baby signing teacher.
Anne remembers the exact moment she decided to teach other parents how to communicate with their babies through sign language. Her son was one year old and they were in the car. He was upset, and she could not figure out what was wrong.
“He was sitting in his car seat in the back,” she explains. “Then, I looked in the mirror and saw him do the sign for milk.” So, she knew what he needed, and she could help him. That was a great feeling, and Anne wanted to share that discovery with other parents.
Although Anne has her MS degree in deaf education, she had always planned to work with hearing children. She started her own business, Parents and Children Signing (P.A.C.S.) after this experience with her son, and today she teaches sign language classes to groups of babies and home-schooled children throughout the Chicago area. Anne says that through her Web site and classes, she is “bound and determined to get the word out regarding the benefits of signing with hearing children.”
By the time Anne’s son was eighteen months old, he had learned the signs for the majority of people and objects in his environment, and Anne and her husband could understand most of what he was saying.
“He either signed his wants to us, or told us. Not once did we go through the terrible twos with our son,” Anne explains. One of the reasons for this she thinks is “because we have never had a breakdown in communication.”
Babies and toddlers instinctively use body movement to express feelings, and by teaching them baby signs, parents can tap into their natural body language. For example, babies turn their heads away when they have had enough stimulation; shaking our heads side to side to signify “no” is an exaggerated expression of this. Waving “bye-bye” is another almost universal gesture that babies learn early. Teaching them other simple signs is an extension of this innate ability, according to Anne.
It’s great that teaching a baby to sign can help her communicate earlier to her parents, but what if teaching baby signing delays verbal skills? Anne suggests that when teaching signing, parents should also say the word and make the sign at the same time; this will reinforce both the gesture and the verbal skills. Anne also noted that eventually children will get tired of having to put their toys down to sign and will speak verbally sooner.
In fact, in a study funded by the National Institute of Health, researchers Susan Goodwyn, Linda Acredolo, and Catherine Brown found that baby signing can actually help verbal language development. The researchers found that the babies who learned sign language before they could talk actually began communicating verbally sooner and scored higher on intelligence tests when compared to the group of children who did not learn signing.
In addition, the parents of these babies reported a decrease in frustration and a strengthening of the bond between themselves and their babies. Early communication can help children develop confidence and problem-solving skills. Babies figure out early how to make parents pay attention to them and to understand and respond to them.
All of this isn’t news to Anne. After years of teaching, she still gets a kick seeing parents get excited when they see their children sign. Anne feels that teaching your baby signing can really begin at any age. “The earlier you start, the more a baby will get used to watching the parents’ hands and using his or her hands,” she explains. Around six months of age is the typical time parents bring their babies to her classes, but many parents start even sooner.
For more information, including some basic signs to begin trying with your child, you can go to Anne Gray’s Web site: Other resources include the book Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk.
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