Talk to the hand: Babies' sign language 'tells' parents what they want

By Lorna Collier
Published February 27, 2000 (Chicago Tribune, Health & Family section)


Nineteen-month-old Jonah Anderson wakes from his afternoon nap with a single all-consuming desire: to hold his beloved toy dump truck. Jonah stands at the edge of his crib, crying, as he moves his hands together in a hinged motion that resembles the actions of a dump truck releasing its load.

When Jonah's parents come to get him, they don't have to guess whether his crying is due to a wet diaper, bad dream, fever, hunger or a need to be held. They know at a glance what he wants, just by looking at the "sign" he is making with his hands.

Neither Jonah nor his parents are hearing-impaired. Nevertheless, Jonah's parents -- like thousands of other parents worldwide who have adopted the practice in recent years -- have trained their son to use baby sign language so they can better communicate with him while he learns to speak.

"The benefit is enormous," says Joel Anderson, Jonah's father, a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Anderson began teaching Jonah signs when he was 5 months old. "He takes such delight in being able to share something with you. You're looking at something and he's naming the same thing and it's part of an experience that's shared. It's all about, `Hey, I'm part of this group; I belong to the world of all you people who are talking about stuff."'

In addition, researchers have found that children who use baby signs learn to speak sooner and more fluently than their non-gesturing counterparts, and may develop higher IQs. Parents report that their signing babies appear to be less prone to frustration-induced tantrums and other behavior problems, because they are able to convey their needs to their parents.

For example, Marsha Kaiser-Schlesinger, an Aviston, Ill., mother, has been teaching her 1-year-old son, Alex, baby signs since he was about 5 months old. She says Alex "doesn't get frustrated at all, because he can tell me when he wants to eat or drink or get out of his chair, instead of just crying and whining and me having to guess what it is he wants."

Anna Watson, a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and editor, used baby signs with her son, Riley, 3 1/2, starting when he was about 8 months old.

"I like to imagine it kind of deepened a trust," she says. "He was able to communicate what he needed, and his needs were met sooner, with less guesswork."

Watson and Anderson began teaching their children sign language after reading "Baby Signs: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk" (NTC/Contemporary, $12.95), by California professors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, who have researched baby signs for 17 years and published numerous studies on the topic.

"Baby Signs" is one of two books that have popularized infant sign language. The other is "Sign With Your Baby: How to Communicate With Infants Before They Can Speak" (Northlight Communications, $14.95), by Joseph Garcia, a Seattle-area child-development researcher who began studying baby sign language in 1986 after seeing how quickly a deaf friend's hearing infant was able to pick up American Sign Language signs.

Both books offer the same basic message while advocating different methods.

In "Baby Signs," Acredolo and Goodwyn advise parents to create their own signs, based on what they think their babies will respond to and be able to mimic; Acredolo and Goodwyn believe this approach is easier for babies and parents to adopt and allows for more spontaneity and flexibility.

Garcia, on the other hand, instructs parents to use signs borrowed from American Sign Language, which he says offers the advantages of standardization and consistency and can be used by day-care providers and other caregivers. He is not opposed to parents making up signs if needed, though.

"Any communication with a child that is clear and helps reduce stress and frustration is positive," Garcia says.

Both books can be purchased with accompanying instructional videotapes; Garcia also offers a laminated chart depicting many common signs.

Teaching infants to sign "is a novel idea, yet it is not a novel idea," says Acredolo, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis. "People wonder, `If this is so good, why haven't we been doing it for years?'

"The truth is, we really have been doing it. We've been waving bye-bye, nodding yes and no -- those are really baby signs that we teach our kids. Yet the idea is that this is the tip of the iceberg."

Garcia agrees. "As long as babies and people have been on Earth, there has been baby sign language," he says. "All Susan and Linda and I have done is try to get more of a systematic approach."

Acredolo and Goodwyn began researching baby signs in the early 1980s, after Acredolo noticed the way her infant daughter, Kate, now 18, was spontaneously learning symbolic gestures -- such as sniffing to indicate a flower -- before she learned to speak. Acredolo began introducing baby signs to Kate and, later, her son; Goodwyn, meanwhile, taught baby signs to her grandchildren. Both women were soon sold on the practice.

Garcia, who also used signs with his son while researching the topic, agrees.

"Having early communication with my child changed the way I parented him," he says. "Usually you carry around this little hunk of love, but you never put much real concentration into its development until it starts to talk back to you. But when at 6 or 8 months he or she starts to gesture and signs back to you, it sparks a feeling in a parent that's indescribable. It enhances the bonding process dramatically."

When Garcia's "Sign With Your Baby," now in its third printing, first came out in 1993, as the self-published "Toddler Talk," it didn't do well. Garcia believes many people were initially turned off by the idea of using sign language, which they considered "a sign of disability." But he says this "cultural taboo" is diminishing because of positive word-of-mouth from satisfied parents, increased media coverage and scientific research that demonstrates its benefits.

Acredolo and Goodwyn's most recent findings, which they plan to present to the International Conference on Infant Studies in England in July, show that 7- and 8-year-old children who learned signs as babies had IQ scores that were an average 12 points higher than those of non-signing children.

"We didn't expect to find this," Acredolo says. "We didn't think something that happened in the second year of life would have a long-term consequence.

"I think what has happened is that baby signs jump-start the whole system. It starts the ball rolling in a whole positive direction, not just in terms of cognitive (awareness), but also . . . an emotional sense of self."

However, Acredolo does not consider higher IQ scores to be an especially important reason for parents to use baby signs.

"I don't particularly care about the IQ stuff," she says. "All we really care about is the interaction between parent and child and the richness of the relationship that can be added by baby signs.

"We always caution parents that this isn't a `better baby' gimmick. This isn't flash cards and lessons. This should be part of just the normal, everyday interactions with your child."

Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor trained as developmental psychologist, studies non-verbal communication at the University of Chicago. She agrees with Acredolo's emphasis.

"Teaching your child signs may be a good idea, not because of its direct effect on language-learning, but because of its indirect -- and beneficial -- effect on parent-child interaction," she says.

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics has not taken a position on the use of baby signs, experts such as Goldin-Meadow agree that, at the very least, "gesture training does absolutely no harm to word-learning and, in fact, has the potential to enrich parent-child early communications."

Adele Abrahamsen, undergraduate director of the philosophy-neuroscience-psychology program and coordinator of linguistics at Washington University, has studied baby signs in both developmentally delayed and normally developing children. Many of the parents in her study were initially worried that using baby signs would delay their child's speech, Abrahamsen says, but "as people tried it, they enjoyed it so much and it enhanced their interaction with their child so much that their worries about speech went into the background."

Abrahamsen's study provided "indirect evidence that, if anything, (using baby signs) could be an enhancement (to speech), rather than interfering."

For example, she says, when children learned a sign for something before mastering the word, they tended to make sounds while signing. Gradually, the sounds got closer to the word. Once the word was understandable, children often dropped the baby sign and used just the word.

Acredolo and Goodwyn's research has shown that children who use signs acquire spoken language more rapidly than non-signing children.

Baby signs also provide an interesting window into a child's early thought processes, Acredolo says, citing the experiences of a mother in Amsterdam who was on a bus with her 15-month-old son when a Rastafarian, in full dreadlocks, sat nearby. The boy stared at the man, then made the baby sign for "hat." The mother shook her head, and signed back "hair." The child looked at the man and again signed "hat."

Finally, Acredolo says, the Rastafarian offered to let the boy touch his hair.

"The boy felt the dreadlocks. His eyes opened wide and he did the sign for hair, as if to say, `Oh my God, it is hair!'

"This is a good example of how baby signs allow the meeting of minds between parent and baby that otherwise would not be there for months. It's true in case after case -- that parents would (otherwise) never know how attentive their babies are."

Acredolo and Goodwyn are developing a new study that will examine infants' ability to retain memories, using as subjects children who know baby sign language.

"As scientists, we never had a way to get into a baby's memory -- we had to wait until they had words," she says.

What happens as infants grow older and begin talking? At first, say Garcia and Acredolo, a child may simultaneously sign and speak some words, often as if for greater emphasis. Gradually, though, the signs will fade as the child turns exclusively to words.

Anna Watson's son, Riley, appears to have forgotten all his baby signs, she says. But he is busy creating new ones as he helps her teach his 9-month-old brother, Liam -- who made his first sign in January, a gesture for "light."

For Watson, seeing her boys make their first signs is a milestone akin to first words and first steps.

"It's such a wonderful jolt," she says. "(It's) that sure knowledge that adult and baby are communicating with such precision, talking about the same thing."



HOW TO GET STARTED WITH SIGNING


When it comes to baby signs, the biggest question many parents have is when to start.
Although it can't hurt the child to start early, it is rare to see any results prior to about 7 to 9 months, because children are simply not capable of this task before then.

"You want it to be a gentle, loving (experience), rather than a forced drill," says Joseph Garcia, author of "Sign With Your Baby" (www.sign2me.com). "I find many parents do it for a while, see nothing in a month or so, and burn out. It's almost better to wait until it can really be received (by the baby) so the parent doesn't get frustrated."

Garcia suggests starting when a baby is about 6 months old; Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, authors of "Baby Signs" (www.focusites.com/babysigns), recommend waiting until a child shows an interest in communication, which usually takes place around 9 to 10 months.

When you do start, be patient. In sign language as in all things, children develop on their own timetables.

"For convenience, we keep citing typical ages at which children may start using baby signs, but there is enormous variation," says Adele Abrahamsen, an associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

"For example, we know from Acredolo and Goodwyn's studies that a typical child has 10 baby signs by age 15 months, but a few children reach that milestone by 12 months, and others not until 20 months."

If a child remains slow to sign, Garcia says parents may be over-anticipating their child's needs and not providing the motivation to learn to sign. He advises waiting a few minutes longer before giving the child what he wants, to see if that will encourage him to make the sign for it.

Children don't always pick up every sign a parent teaches and may develop their own versions of signs, based on their interpretation of its meaning and their fine motor abilities. Don't worry if your child doesn't do the sign exactly as you think he or she should; as long as you both understand the meaning, the baby sign is working.

Parents should always speak the word for a sign as well as make the sign and should make eye contact with their child when doing so.

-- Lorna Collier

Copyright © 2000, Lorna Collier

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