“Talk” With Your Baby Using Sign Language


By Michelle Feder
Published in the September, 2003 edition of Parent Map Magazine

When she started using sign language with her eight-month old baby, Janet Choi was a little skeptical. For four months, she signed “more” to her son Soren, who didn’t seem interested. But during his first birthday party, his two hands came together asking for “more”. “I was shocked because I had given up,” says Choi, a Rainier Beach mom. “But at some point, it had taken hold – he had internalized it.” At 14 months, with help from a training video by Joseph Garcia, Sign With Your Baby, and a sign language website, Soren started learning additional signs and Choi’s skepticism gave way to pleasant surprise. Now at this point (16 months), I can teach him a sign during the day and he will know it by the time he’s going to bed.

For many Seattle area parents, signing has become part of their parenting toolbox, a way to encourage their child to communicate before he or she can speak. “Babies have language skills much sooner than they have speech skills”, says Nancy Hanauer, who teaches Signing With Your Baby classes throughout the Seattle area. Language development begins by five months, she says, but speech doesn’t emerge until closer to a year.

The optimal time to start signing, she says, is at about seven or eight months, when memory, manual dexterity and cognitive abilities enable little ones to put it all together. “Babies can express their first sign at six, seven, eight months of age and express their needs and wants and lower their frustrations.”

In her classes, which use Garcia’s book as a primer, Hanauer teaches signs that are used during the natural course of the day. “More”, “milk”, and “eat” are common starters. Eye contact is important, she says, as is consistency. To help parents decide what signs to introduce, Hanauer relies on the acronym KISS – Keep It Simple and Significant. “What do you want the baby to tell you that you are not able to identify from their crying, or their whining, or their babbling?”

For Jennifer Reibman of Bellevue, signing allowed her to communicate with her pre-verbal daughter Moriah, who is now 2 . “It was nice that if she was in pain, she could do the ‘pain’ sign near the body part that hurt.” Reibman had read that signing promoted language development and, together with her moms group, started signing after attending a lecture by Garcia. She also was attracted to Garcia’s method, which is based on American Sign Language, because she viewed signing as a transferable skill her daughter could develop.

“We didn’t try to build this enormous vocabulary and I limited it to things we were doing and saying every day,” Reibman says. “And once she was talking, I didn’t keep up with it so much.” Now a mother of two (son Barak was born in May), Reibman does plan to sign with her son, but admits that it may be hard to be as dedicated with her second child.

Hanauer says that when it comes to signing, there’s a broad range of success. Many families stick with 10 to 12 signs – simple safety, comfort, and food signs. Others are using up to 20 signs by age 1 and up to 80 signs by age 2. What’s most important, she says, is tailoring the communication to the family’s needs.

For Choi, maintaining and building her son’s signing vocabulary from “apple” to the more abstract concept “please” has been easier than she thought. “I thought it would be a big task, but the pace is slow enough that I don’t feel it’s been that much work for me. I definitely feel the payoff is worth the effort I put into it.”

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