Talking `baby" - Sign language for babies helps parents, infants communicate

By Wendy Giroux

Imagine knowing what your 6-month-old is upset about, instead of frantically trying to guess whether she wants a banana, a bath or her favorite toy.

That's the idea behind teaching babies to use selected signs to communicate before they're able to say the word that the sign represents.

The Parenting Center at the Stroum Jewish Community offered a class last week in baby sign language, with the goal of helping frustrated parents communicate better with their young children.

``It's intended to enhance language. As adults, we often forget how hard it is for babies to learn new words,'' said Carla Hershman, director of the Parenting Center. Hershman has a master's degree in social work and in infant and mental health. ``Babies are natural signers -- they're always kind of expressing themselves with their bodies.''

There are two primary reasons many parents choose to teach their babies to sign, Hershman said. The first is to make it easier for the child to convey what hurts when they're sick or uncomfortable. The second is simply for fun.

``It's a way for them to be able to point to things they see or are excited about,'' she said. For example, during a visit to the zoo, a young child will most often be able to make the sign for ``elephant'' long before being able to pronounce the word ``elephant.''

When considering whether to use signs with their children, some parents worry about how it will affect overall language development.

``There's kind of been a myth that if kids learn sign language, they won't learn to speak,'' Hershman explained.

But studies have actually shown the opposite is true, she said -- that kids simply drop the sign once they are able to say the word, and that they actually speak sooner than children who don't use signs.

The best time to start teaching babies to sign seems to be at about 6 months. It's okay to start earlier, but parents should expect it to take a while before they get a sign back from their child, Hershman said. A good indicator of when babies are ready for signs is when they start pointing at things or waving ``hello'' and ``good-bye,'' since those are essentially simple signs.

Emily Anderson, a JCC teacher who works with 3- to 12-month-olds and attended Hershman's class, said she has had a few babies use signs they've learned at home -- primarily waving and signs for things such as ``more'' or ``milk.''

``I think it's great,'' Anderson said. She pointed out that parents are used to having practice ``conversations'' with their babies before they can speak, simply by mimicking back the sounds or babbling that the baby makes. In the same way, parents can get babies used to the idea of signs with practice conversations in signs by mimicking what a baby does. For example, if the baby Hershman recommends two books as a starting point for parents: ``Baby Signs,'' by L. Acredolo and S. Goodwyn, and ``Signing Exact English,'' by Gerilee Gustafson and Esther Zawolkow. The signs should not be confused with American Sign Language, which has its own signs and methods.

To start off, she suggests that parents choose a handful of signs for things they think their child is interested in, such as the signs for ``ball,'' ``cat,'' and ``milk.'' Then, begin to use the sign and the word simultaneously, preferably at about the same time of day or during a certain routine, such pointing to a ball while signing and saying ``ball'' during diaper-changing time, or pointing to toast while signing and saying ``toast'' at breakfast time.

``Be patient, and expect to spend a lot of time signing by yourself,'' Hershman said. It's also a good idea to use those same few signs in front of the baby between parents or with the baby's siblings.

Keep in mind that some children may modify a certain sign or come up with their own signs to represent things they want. For example, if a baby seems to always touch his nose with his palm when he's eating apples, he may be trying that out as a sign.

``It doesn't matter if they do the sign the correct way, as long as they are consistent and you can understand each other,'' Hershman said. ``If the kids know what you're doing, it's working.''

Once a baby has a few signs in his or her repertoire, parents can begin to pair them together to communicate -- such as saying and signing ``Mommy'' then ``Bye-bye,'' to let the baby know ``Mommy is going bye-bye.''

The book ``Baby Signs'' gives four top tips for success, Hershman said:

? Always pair the sign with saying the word aloud.

? Be patient.

? Create opportunities to use the sign, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.

? Make it fun.

Baby sign language

A second session of ``Baby Sign Language,'' taught by Carla Hershman, will be offered at 7:30 p.m. today. To attend it or other Parenting Center classes, families must either belong to the Parenting Center or to the JCC. For more information or to find out about free passes, contact Hershman at 232-7115.

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