Sign language can help infants communicate before they can talk

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Looking for a sign about what your fussing, whining baby really wants?

A growing number of parents are turning to sign language to help little ones communicate their wants and needs before they're able to talk.

There are books, community courses and even references to infant sign language in popular motion pictures. (Remember the signing, foul-mouthed baby in the movie &#8220Meet the Fockers?”)

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The ultimate goal of using baby sign language is increasing bonding and reducing frustration among infants and toddlers, said Linda Acredolo, co-author of the book &#8220Baby Signs” and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California-Davis.

&#8220It's no different from how we feel when we're in France and we don't speak French,'' she said. &#8220It's the same feeling of being cut off and helpless to get your messages across. And it's a shame if parents don't have this bridge.''

Children who know the signs for some basic words - things such as &#8220milk,'' &#8220more'' and &#8220eat'' - often fuss less because they're less frustrated, said Pam Lile, an American Sign Language interpreter and educator who teaches courses on signing to babies for Summa Health System in Akron.

&#8220It just alleviates a lot of tantrums,'' Lile said.

On a recent Saturday morning at Summa's outpatient facility on the Akron City Hospital campus, about a dozen babies sat on blankets while their attentive parents sang songs and practiced the hand motions for some basic words in American Sign Language.

What looked like child's play - things such as singing &#8220Itsy Bitsy Spider” - actually helped teach the youngsters to pay attention to their caregivers and mimic their actions, Lile said. Those skills are critical for babies to start using sign language.

&#8220Getting them clapping with you is a wonderful beginning,'' she told the parents.

Some of the parents said they're seeing positive results.

Jennifer Sweeney enrolled in Lile's &#8220Time to Sign'' class to help communicate with her 10-month-old twins, Alexis and Isabella.

As a behavioral consultant who works with children with developmental disorders, Sweeney said, she knows firsthand the importance of early communication skills.

Instead of crying when they want milk, her two girls now crawl up to her and make the sign for milk - a fist that's being squeezed as if milking a cow's udder.

&#8220If they can communicate their needs to me, that helps,'' she said. &#8220It definitely gets us to get their bottle a lot quicker.''

Sign language isn't a requirement for communication development.

But it can help bridge the gap between when children start understanding language at about 8 or 9 months and when they're able to begin speaking, usually between 12 to 15 months of age, said Dr. Nevada Reed, a pediatric neurologist at Akron Children's Hospital.

In fact, babies naturally start using their own gestures to get their points across to caregivers, she said.

&#8220From the time they're born, they're communicating with their behaviors, with their facial expressions and their cries,'' she said. &#8220Many children, by around 9 months to age 1, are starting to use some gestures on their own.''