Your Baby is Trying to Tell You Something


By Judy Guitton
Published in the March 28th, 2002 edition of the Edmonds Beacon Newspaper

The problem: The baby is crying, wailing and whining, won’t sleep, won’t stop. Her weary parents are wondering, “What? Is she teething? Tired? Hungry? Wet? What does she WANT?”

The solution: “Teach your baby to sign-not whine! That says it all,” says Nancy Hanauer, whose popular “Signing With Your Baby” classes teach American Sign Language (ASL) to babies and their bewildered parents. “The goal is to reduce the stress for the whole family, because they can learn to communicate their needs by signing.

“Your baby wants to tell you something when he’s crying and babbling, pointing and gesturing, and he expects you to understand him,” Nancy continues. “Crying, whining, and fussing are the only means of communication they have. Babies don’t have the fine motor skills to SAY what they want. But as early as seven months old, they are already fluent at gesturing, and they can SHOW what they want. Because sign language is visual and gestural, “Babies are attuned to it and it’s very natural for them,” she says. Learning just a few ASL signs, such as “more,” “ear-hurt,” “change,” “sleep,” “milk”, or “hug” enables the baby to communicate what she wants. According to Nancy, “It’s an effective temporary method of expressing herself before she is able to speak.”

Although ASL has long been used by the Deaf, the idea of hearing babies and parents signing to communicate with each other is a new trend in parenting. While it is expanding rapidly in the U.S. and overseas, it is especially popular in the Northwest since its founder, early childhood development researcher Joseph Garcia, is based in Bellingham. Hanauer uses Garcia’s methods and materials in her classes.

In her classes, babies and their parents learn about 80 ASL signs, those most relevant to a baby’s needs. Classes meet for an hour each week for four consecutive weeks. Using songs, stories and other activities, Nancy teaches with a “light-hearted, hands-on approach that’s fun for parents and babies”. Parents, parents-to-be, grandparents, and other caregivers such as day-care providers, learn how to sign with the baby. The babies, usually between 6 and 18 months old, often accompany them to class.

“Nancy was very prepared, enthusiastic, and so knowledgeable and experienced,” says Gabrielle Fox-Catton of Edmonds, who recently attended Signing With Your Baby classes at the Frances Anderson Center in Edmonds with her baby, Lexie.

Hanauer began teaching Signing With Your Baby classes after ten years experience as a certified and credentialed teacher of Deaf and Special Education students. With her interest and training in ASL and education, she wanted to learn more about Signing With Your Baby. When she was ready to offer her own classes, she quit her day job, followed her bliss, and found her niche. “It was a huge leap of faith,” she admits, “but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done! It’s changed my life. I work for myself, and it’s opened up so many avenues. It’s exciting for me to be able to take my knowledge of Deaf culture and ASL and language development into a completely different realm than I ever considered! It’s been so gratifying-an absolute joy– to work with parents and babies and empower them with a skill that will aid communication, reduce frustration, and strengthen their bond.”

Another plus about this job for the vivacious teacher is “Definitely, the babies! Babies just tickle me. I get to play with the babies and they’re so sweet-I love it! And the parents are so enthusiastic-they want the best for their children.” One enthusiastic parent is Sandi Young, mother of signing baby Noelle. “Using sign language has been a great experience for us-we’re so impressed with the results. Our baby started signing at a year old, and it’s just the best when babies can tell you they’d like a drink or more to eat.” The Youngs are just one of over 100 families that Nancy has worked with over the past year and a half. Nancy is delighted with the success of her classes and enthusiastic about the results. Families of signing babies report that they experience less frustration, a stronger parent-child bond, higher levels of self-esteem, fewer tantrums, easier toilet-training, and here’s the clincher: the “terrible twos” turn out to be almost tame.

Signing babies are successful in communicating their immediate needs. They also seem to be laying the groundwork for better language skills in the future. Nancy explains, “When you sign, you’re using both sides of the brain, so these babies are stimulating their brain in a unique manner that their non-signing babies aren’t.” What’s more, babies who sign start talking sooner than their hearing peers and in a more sophisticated manner. Their parents report, “When they start talking, we can’t get them to stop!” Nancy’s experience supports recent research that indicates that as signing babies get older, they often show larger vocabularies than their peers, as well as more interest in books, stronger reading and communication skills, and higher IQ scores.

However, the goal of signing babies is not a higher IQ. Nancy clarifies that signing babies are not being pushed by anxious or ambitious parents to perform beyond their level of maturity. She says that instead, the goal is simple: “To empower your little one and give him the ability to communicate his needs and wants to you in order to reduce his frustration and yours.” The result: no more fussy babies, no more frustrated parents. Babies who sign don’t whine! No wonder Signing With Your Baby classes are so much in demand.

Nancy has scheduled upcoming classes at several sites, including North Seattle Community College, Bellevue Community College, the Phinney Neighborhood Center, and the North Kirkland Community Center. For those who can’t attend the scheduled classes, Nancy also offers Signing With Your Baby classes in students’ homes to groups of four or more families.

Nancy Hanauer moved to Edmonds seven years ago and loves living and working here. “I came to this area and just drove around and then I found downtown Edmonds and said, “This is it! This is where I need to live! It’s so charming, it’s so beautiful, it’s so peaceful.” The petite, green-eyed Nancy also teaches art classes in Edmonds and sells some of her own work -“everything from garden art to soaps and bath salts”-at the Edmonds Summer Market on Saturdays. There, she says, “I run into so many families from my art classes and Signing With Your Baby classes. I love Edmonds for that sense of community!”

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