Signing Jump Starts Babies’ Early Communication


By Shannon Sessions, Enterprise Editor
Photo by Dusty Locke
Published in the October 21st, 2002 edition of The Everett Herald, the October 18th edition of the Edmonds, Lynnwood, and Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, and the October 25th edition of the Lake Forest Park, Mill Creek and Shoreline Enterprise.

There is a particular span of time which is frustrating for both parent and child, maybe even more so for the child. It is the time between when children begin communicating non-verbally and when they speak in words. The child screams, cries, has a tantrum, just to try to communicate to the parent or caregiver. After the uproar and confusion of what could be bothering her, you realize she just needed a drink of milk or maybe that her gums hurt from teething. There is an alternative: baby sign language.

“Signing with hearing babies allows them to express emotions, feelings, needs and to increase engagement by lowering the stress in family,” said Edmonds resident Nancy Hanauer, who teaches sign language to hearing families with hearing babies throughout King and Snohomish Counties. She runs a class at the Frances Anderson Center in Edmonds and also teaches the same course in local homes, childcare centers and schools.

Hanauer, a state certified teacher, has spent much of her professional life instructing Deaf and hard of hearing children and hearing children who struggle with reading. She started teaching her “Signing With Your Baby” course about two years ago. The American Sign Language course she teaches is based on the book Sign With Your Baby written by Bellingham resident Joseph Garcia.

Pam Jackson and her 10 month old daughter, Isabel, attend Nancy Hanauer’s signing class in Edmonds.

Garcia said the point of teaching hearing parents and babies sign language is simply to try to make parents better parents. “Signing is a gift from the Deaf to the hearing,” Garcia said. “I believe (being Deaf) is not a symbol of a disability but one of ability.”

There are other forms of baby sign language and books that teach it, Hanauer said, “but if it’s not American Sign Language (ASL), it’s fake and is teaching the child a secret language,” she said. American Sign Language can be translated in an emergency situation by anyone who knows how to sign, Hanauer said. Using ASL “teaches them a sensitivity at a young age to people who use another language to communicate,” Hanauer said.

Garcia, who has been featured on the television news program 20/20, said he started the program after years of experience interpreting for the Deaf and teaching sign language. As he taught special education, early childhood development and adult education, he realized teaching hearing adults to sign to hearing babies would help resolve some of their daily stress. Garcia knows the ups and downs of parenting. He and his wife have two teenage children and an adopted 10-month-old.

Garcia said he started early in teaching his new baby signs. “Don’t wait until they are expressing signs to start teaching,” Garcia said. “Just because your baby isn’t signing back doesn’t mean they don’t understand far more than they indicate,” he said. “They have gone through this incredible mental process before that, associating the infrastructure for later spoken language.”

Skeptics have said if children are signing, it will delay them from actually talking. But Hanauer said, in her experience, children speak sooner because she teaches signing and speaking simultaneously. “There’s more left and right brain activity with signing. They have to process it, say the word, and sign it,” she said.

A challenge of signing is that it won’t work when the baby isn’t looking. Or, since the parent can speak and hear, it is hard to remember to practice the signing with the baby throughout the day, said some parents in the class in Edmonds given by Hanauer. The class is filled with parents and babies from five months to the oldest, Lynnwood resident Addison Turner, 13 months. Addison’s grandparents, Dee and Fred Busch of Everett, care for Addison about three days a week and have been signing to him for months. “He understands all of the signs we use with him and he uses a few himself and has made up his own signs,” she said. “He just signed his first sentence the other day.” He was walking on a bridge over a creek and while he usually would stick his hand in the water, he stopped and signed “Water, no, cold,” she said.

In the class, some parents and caregivers choose to include their child in the class while others choose to learn on their own and then teach the child at home. Either way is fine, Hanauer said. Hanauer encourages her students to stick with the basics when signing with babies. “You need to have the basics to get through the rough times,” she said.

Her classes consist of babies from five months to about two years old. But due to popular demand, she is planning on offering a follow up, refresher workshop for past students. While you can start signing with your baby at five months or earlier, babies won’t typically start to sign back until they are about eight months to 1- year-old, she said. “About the time they are waving “hi” and “bye” on their own,” Hanauer said, it is something parents/caregivers need to stick to, because the child will eventually start signing.

Mill Creek residents Joe and Lisa Boscacci, parents of fraternal twins Gianna and Jared, learned the basics of baby signing from Garcia’s book, when the twins were about eight months old. Lisa Boscacci said. “It was hard to stick with it, because you don’t see results right away,” she admits. “Then, literally, all of a sudden about when they turned a year old they started signing back. “I just picked five or six signs to get us through the rough times – ones to help communicate with us before they could talk,” Boscacci said. The signs the Boscacci’s picked were “eat”, “more”, “all done”, “down”, “ouch”, “please” and “thank you”. “And they have made up signs of their own, and then the twins copied each other to use the signs” she said, which the experts say is very common. Now the twins are 22 months, and their words have for the most part taken over, Boscacci said. But every once in awhile Gianna will sign what she wants after her words aren’t answered right away or if she doesn’t get the answer she wants, her Mom said.

Tips from Joseph Garcia, author of Sign With Your Baby:

  • Don’t push signs on your baby but instead augment your normal communication activities with signs.
  • Don’t go out and buy all the books about baby sign language and “force feed signs on your child” – don’t have too high expectations. It’s the delivery process – not only cerebral but physical too.
  • Don’t show off your child or have them sign out of context.
  • Don’t hold back care giving if they stop or don’t sign.
  • Don’t show disappointment when they don’t sign back or they sign wrong.
  • Do keep giving them more signs. They want more signs, just like they want more words. Then allow the child to discover the signs through their observations. It’s that discovery process that empowers your child and gives them their first steps in their journey to self esteem.
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