Lend a Hand: Communicating with Babies Through Sign Language
By Barbara Wexler

It's a phenomenon that's happening the world over. Open up Business Week, People Weekly, or your daily newspaper and you'll see it in print. Go into cyberspace and there's myriad websites—from South Africa to Hawaii—with parents extolling its virtues. Browse through your local bookshops and there you'll find books telling you how to do it and when to start. What's at the center of this revolution? Communication with babies through sign.

As with many new forms of thought there are two schools: one, Baby Signs, has parents teaching their self-created signs to the baby; the other has parents teaching recognized signs from American Sign Language (ASL), the recognized language of the hearing impaired, to baby.

 "We started in 1982 when my year-old daughter spontaneously created her language," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., reflecting on when her child started making spider sign from Itsy Bitsy Spider as well as a sign for smelling flowers. "I wanted to read about it but there was nothing documented about this as a common form of communication." A professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, Acredolo has also served as secretary of the Society for Research in Child Development and as associate editor of Child Development, a leading professional research journal. Her daughter, Kate, now 19, was the original "Baby Signer."

Acredolo came up with other signs for her baby. She spent a number of years seeing if other babies also signed. She and her partner, Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and child development at California State University, Stanislaus, and an associate researcher at the University of California, soon realized it was a natural phenomenon. They published their findings in professional journals and realized that these signs related to good language development. This led to a study funded by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) which encouraged a group of babies to make baby signs—or symbolic gesturing as it's known academically - while a control group did not. Kai Acredolo (now 14) was a Baby Sign subject for this pilot study in 1987-1988.

In 1986, "Baby Signs: How to Talk With Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk" by Acredolo and Goodwyn was published and parents have been signing ever since. It fosters the idea that babies want to communicate with their parents long before they can verbally do so. (Such as babies nodding for yes.)

Their latest study showed that Baby Signs helped children talk earlier and jump-started their cognitive development, which has translated into higher IQ scores. There was a 12-point gap in IQ between a group of second graders who had trained in sign as infants and a group who had not. "We were astonished," Acredolo demurs. But she is also quick to caution that "a higher IQ is not a reason to do Baby Signs. The reason to do it is the resulting emotional relationship between the parent and child."

On the other side of the fence, Joseph Garcia, an early childhood education researcher in Bellingham, Wash., has produced paperbacks, videos and reference guides as part of a series called "Sign with your Baby." His program is based on ASL. Garcia points out the advantage of using a standardized sign language, as a foundation, is that most people who know how to sign are able to respond to and understand the signs baby is making. His program also provides a foundation for baby to continue to learn to sign as he matures.

For Garcia, the first "Sign with your Baby" research was conducted while he was completing his Masters program at Alaska Pacific University. But he cautions that parents should not become frustrated with baby if they do not respond immediately. "Consistently using a few signs on a daily basis is the key to making the program work," he adds. "Parents want gratification so I tell them not to start until the baby is seven to eight months old, even though they could start signing to the baby earlier. I would rather have the parents not lose interest."

Acredolo does not believe in using ASL as a way to sign to babies because babies only use signing for a short period of time. "We take our cues from the babies. These are common sense signs. Parents can make up the signs that work for them."

Regardless of which system you use, everyone agrees that repetition is the key to success.

Marilyn Daniels, an associate professor of speech communication at Pennsylvania State University and author of "Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy," says that her research shows teaching ASL to hearing children for five years translates into better scores on language and vocabulary tests. "It actually builds more brain synapses," Daniels says.

Daniels believes that children should be taught the manual ASL alphabet with their ABCs. "They have the fine motor skills to do the signs. Parents should stick with ASL, as it's a legitimate language that means the same for many. Parents can learn ASL at the same time as their child. It's an opportunity to learn a real second language."

Some parents are starting their own signing classes for babies that function as an added-benefit Mommy and Me.

Meredith Layton, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist and a mother of a toddler. She is expecting her second child this summer. Prior to moving to Knoxville, Tenn., she was employed by Special Kids & Families Inc., in Memphis, Tenn., where she provided instruction in the area of speech and language development to special-needs children ages birth to three and their families.

When Layton's son Bo was eight months old, it hit her that she should be signing to him. He would accompany her to work and Bo became an avid signer. He and the children at Special Kids were the inspiration for the "Sign & Say Interactive Language Series."

"My book is designed as a series of five," Layton, who self-published the book with her husband's help, says. "The first book contains 12 signs." She adds that it's more than just a book as there is a flannel board included to encourage activities to learn the different signs. "There are not a lot of activity kits and games designed for this."

Layton's program is based on Signed English which was developed as a supplement to oral English at Gallaudet University, the university for the deaf located in Washington, D.C. "Using a universal language that's linked to a universal language" is good, she says, "especially in a day-care setting where everyone is 'speaking' the same language."

Up next for Layton is a support group for parents where they will learn basic sign through music and play.

Prior to becoming a full-time mom in April of last year, Debbie Lesser worked as a nationally certified sign language interpreter in the metro Atlanta area. She and her business partner Sarah Preston, also a nationally certified sign language interpreter, created Little Signers, Inc. because of the high demand from parents to learn sign language as a supplemental form of communication with their children. Their program provides guidance and tools to parents and caregivers on how to communicate with their babies through sign language before their infants can speak.

"As soon as I became involved in the parenting community, I had numerous requests from people to learn how to sign with their babies," Lesser says. "It helps reduce frustration."

Lesser prefers ASL because "it's a visual language that is stimulating fine motor skills and the visual language centers. Babies may not necessarily sign exactly at first but over time they will," Lesser expands. She adds that learning ASL can also prove beneficial down the road if the child is in a class with a hearing-impaired child. "They will be able to communicate." Lesser's classes focus on teaching adults and the adults are encouraged to use the sign with the activity. "There are very few program available," she says. "It's a nice way to meet other moms. The classes are continuing to evolve as we go forward.

Laura Felzer has taken signing in a different direction. Teaching students who range between seven and nine years old at Perez Special Education Center in the L.A. Unified School District, Felzer use ASL and ESL (English as a Second Language) to reach mentally disabled children, many of whom come from homes where Spanish is spoken. She also teaches a class on Wednesdays in Claremont, Calif., for non-disabled kindergartners who are learning to read. "I demonstrate reading lessons with the children and the parents follow-up at home."

Felzer's program started with special education students and has taken off from there. "Most of my students were classified as mentally retarded and most of them did not respond to other instructional methods for teaching reading," she said. "I later discovered that my program is successful with all students including non-disabled students and second language learners. Many of my special education students began to succeed way beyond the expectations of parents and other educators. I was than inspired to turn my attentions to those students who were struggling to learn to read in general education classrooms."

Felzer believes that ASL can go beyond a tool to communicate with babies as "it's fun and a good second language. Our only daughter, Karen, developed an interest in signing and finger spelling… when she read the story of Helen Keller when she was about 8 years old. By that point she was already reading so I didn't use it to teach her to read."

For Jennifer VanLaanen, who lives in Hawaii and is the mother of Gage 7, Scout 5, Reeve 20 months, teaching her children ASL as babies seemed the appropriate thing to do.

"I just figured it would work—that my babies would be able to sign before they could talk. I mean deaf children do this—sign at a young age—why not hearing children?" VanLaanen muses. "I started signing to them around six to seven months old. They all started to sign to me around 11 months."

Although her children stopped signing as the main means of communication once they became verbal, VanLaanen says they sign on occasion. "They did stop signing somewhat but still continued if we were being quiet or wanted to say something in secret."

VanLaanen enthuses about the benefits of teaching her babies to sign. "My baby can tell me his dreams, tell me stories, tell me what he wants, what he needs, if something is wrong or right. It helps us bond as we communicate easily and he doesn't get frustrated as his needs are voiced and met."

VanLaanen supports caregivers and preschool teachers knowing to sign for reasons beyond communication with babies. "Especially if it's ASL as the deaf community would have more people familiar with sign."

Haruna, who lives in the Midwest with her toddler, heard about Baby Signs from a friend and decided to give it a try. "It made sense to me that such early communication could help reduce the frustration level of my baby, who was somewhat of a 'high-need' baby in the sense that she was never content to just sit and watch the world go by."

Once her daughter started to speak, though, Baby Signs were quickly replaced by verbal language. "By 20 months, she began to speak in full sentences, which is a relatively early accomplishment that I attribute to her use of baby signs. I taught her a combination of Baby Signs and ASL."

Haruna cautions that signing with your baby is something a parent must be willing to be dedicated to doing. "I really believe that the successful use of Baby Signs requires a lot of constant repetition and discipline."

Jennifer Long of Palm Bay, Fla., and the mother of identical twin girls, Kayla and Allison, now four and a half, began signing to her daughters when they showed an interest in communicating. "They were very frustrated that they could not talk."

Long taught her twins ASL as she saw it "as teaching them a second language." She also believes that teaching babies sign should be kept within the family. "I think it should be a parent taught language."

According to Garcia, beyond finding a means to early communication with your baby, this skill helps children discover their inner resources, which can last a lifetime.

Working for nearly two decades as an award-winning journalist, Barbara Wexler lives in the Los Angeles area. Her proudest accomplishment, though, is being the mother to her eight-year-old two boys, Sam and Dillon.

Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., and Susan Goodwyn, Ph.D.
Baby Signs

Marilyn Daniels
"Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy"

Laura Felzer

Joseph Garcia
"Sign with your Baby"

Meredith Layton, MA, CCC-SLP
"Sign and Say"

Debbie Lesser
Little Signers, Inc.

Jennifer VanLaanen-Smit
Also known as the Mango Mama and the author of "Natural Parenting"
http://www.geocities.com/jvanlaanen/print.html or
http://www.mangomama.org or