Learning to sign before speaking

Expression: Parents turn to a program that teaches their babies gestures so they can communicate without words.

June 26, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Amy Goodman remembers all too well dining out with her 13-month-old twin sons, Connor and Caiden. When the boys wanted milk, they screamed.

"We would be out at restaurants and the boys would want a drink or something to eat, and of course they're too small to say what they wanted, so they would just scream and point," Goodman said. "It's just so embarrassing. People look and you get stares, and you get to the point where you hate to go out to eat."

Determined to ease the frustration of trying to communicate with her sons, the Abingdon resident enrolled them in Baby Signs, a program that teaches babies signs and gestures as a way to communicate before they can speak. Baby Signs is based on the premise that babies are able to express themselves long before they acquire verbal skills.

Goodman said she was skeptical when she signed up for a workshop led by Tiffany Masson, an Abingdon resident who recently began conducting Baby Signs workshops in Harford and Baltimore counties. But a couple of weeks after learning how to sign, Goodman taught her boys signs for everyday concepts such as "milk" and "more."

"We know what they want when they sign it and get it to them before they scream," she said.

Now Goodman is eager to see whether the twins begin to sign to each other.

Baby Signs is based on research showing that using signs enhances language, cognitive and social-emotional development of babies. The program originated in 1982 when two researchers at the University of California, Davis launched a study of babies and sign language.

"We discovered that teaching babies sign language facilitated and sped up talking," said Linda Acredolo, a psychologist who later co-authored a best-selling book on the program. "And children who used sign language had higher IQs than peers who didn't."

The researchers also noted social and emotional benefits for the babies and positive effects on the parent-child relationship. Acredolo said signing reduces frustration for the baby and parents and enables the babies to share their world.

Nationwide the program has about 500 instructors, and classes consist of six to 10 children.

In an era when more parents are seeking new ways to accelerate their child's development at an early age, some experts question various methods being advocated.

When it comes to early development of communication skills, Stanley Greenspan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine, said simple and lengthier interaction between the parent and child is best for a child.

The author of several books on child development, Greenspan said teaching babies to use specific signs and gestures introduces an artificial element into the naturally developing communication system.

"Anytime you do something repetitive with a baby you're reducing the flexibility and creativity of the child," Greenspan said. "I don't want to say that parents who use sign language are doing something bad or wrong, that only makes the parent feel bad. But why not let your child learn to ask for a drink 30 different ways instead of just using one sign? What if there was only one way to express love? Or one gesture to show love?"

For Masson, the Harford resident and Baby Signs instructor, personal experience convinced her of the benefit of sign language.

A few months ago, the first-time mother was experiencing problems trying to teach signing to her 11-month-old daughter, Molly. Masson was working from a book on American Sign Language that was given to her by a speech pathologist. But Molly was making little progress.

Masson read about Baby Signs and attended a workshop. Within two weeks, Molly was signing.

"She started doing one new sign each week," Masson said. "She progressed to two then four new signs a week."

A former reading specialist teacher, Masson decided to train to present workshops and classes in her home.

"I missed working with adults," she said. "And I want to be a stay-at-home mom, and teaching Baby Signs allows me to do both."

The program starts with parents attending a 90-minute workshop, which costs $60 and includes instructional materials. Parents can continue on their own at home or take classes with their child. Six 45-minute sessions teach parents how to use the program. The cost is $125 and also includes materials.

The classes are set up like a play group. The parents interact with the children, singing songs and playing with toys while practicing signs.

Whatever approach a parent takes, Masson said each baby progresses at his or her own pace.

"You can't make a baby sign, just like you can't make them walk or talk when you want them to," she said. "It has to come at their own pace. But if they're waving bye-bye, then they're ready."

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