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Teaching My Baby Sign Language - One of the Best Things I've Ever Done

I've started having children late in life, and one of the most amazing things that I've done with my kids when they where a baby has been to teach my baby sign language. While at first I was a bit hesitant about the whole thing (it seemed just one more thing I was supposed to do in the quest to produce super children), as soon as my first daughter started signing back I was hooked.

First, and most importantly, by teaching my baby sign language she had a way to tell us what she wanted months and months before she ever would have been able to do verbally. I really think this helped her feel much less frustrated with everyday life and she was so much happier being able to tell us what she wanted rather than getting frustrated and angry.

A side benefit to baby sign language was that we also got a look inside her mind at a very young age - and it really was lovely. She could tell us a bit of what she was thinking about visiting the zoo, etc. I just loved it and kind of missed it when she began to taper off using baby sign language and started to talk (and pretty quickly she dropped the signing and boy has she kept talking to this very day). The important thing was she loved it and we did to - baby sign language made both our lives much easier and richer.

How did we get started with teaching our baby sign language? We were very lucky in that my wife had worked as a speech pathologist with deaf kids and already knew American Sign Language. I learned as our daughter did (although I think she learned faster than me at times). For those of you who are interested in teaching your baby sign language, I do have a great resource for you.

A very dear friend of my wife, who is also a teacher of deaf kids and fluent in American Sign Language, got excited about teaching sign language to babies when she had her first child a couple of years ago. Since then, she has taught classes in her home town (Alexandria, VA), and also put a great deal of time and effort putting up a website with information about her programs, teaching your baby sign language, and also books on teaching your baby sign language and other learning materials you can get to help you learn sign language with your baby. Her site is Tiny Fingers, and I encourage you to visit it if you are interested in signing with your baby, and if you have any questions I know Eileen will be more than happy to answer them.

One thing I asked her to do was write an article on signing with your baby so that people could learn more about it from a professional who knows a lot more about it than I do. You will find the article she wrote below:

5 Reasons Why Parents Teach Signs to Hearing Babies

by Eileen Ladino, M.A.

In the past decade, a growing number of parents worldwide have discovered the joys of using simple sign language with their preverbal babies. Why sign language? Babies can gain control of their hands long before they develop the oral motor skills necessary for speech, so signs allow little ones to express their thoughts without crying or whining - a bonus for both babies and parents. But reducing frustration is just one reason parents love using Sign Language.

Here's what researchers Linda Acredcolo, PhD and Susan Goodwyn, PhD, the authors of Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk (Contemporary Books, 2002), have found in their 20 years of research on the effects of Baby Signs on babies' development.

Sign Language . . .

1. help babies talk sooner . . . and boost spoken vocabulary
2. empower babies to direct adults' attention to what they want to talk about
3. reduce frustration
4. provide a strong foundation for early literacy
5. stimulate intellectual development

1. Using sign language with babies help them talk sooner

One concern that parents have is the effect of sign language on speech development. Acredolo and Goodwyn have found that Baby Signers actually talk sooner than non-signers. The reason being that they are using expressive language from an earlier age, playing with words, ideas and pairing them up before they have even developed the oral motor skills necessary for speech. In addition, they have found that by age 8, children who signed had stronger reading skills than those who did not. For more information on this NIH funded research, please go to http://www.tinyfingers.com/benefits.html

2. Sign Language Empowers Babies to Initiate Conversations

Most babies will show signs of wanting to communicate by coming up with their own simple gestures: they will raise their arms to say "Pick me up," reach for things they want, pat the couch to say "up", or open their mouth wide when they want more food. Signs expand on this idea and offer children an opportunity to communicate about specific ideas or concepts.

After returning from a walk around the neighborhood, Isabel looked at her mom and signed "airplane."

"Yes," her mom said, "we saw a big airplane up in the sky today. It was flying to a place far away."

In this exchange, the child expressed a topic on her mind and the parent was able to elaborate on it, modeling language on a topic the child initiated.

3. Sign Language Reduces Frustration

Parents and researchers agree that after learning sign language as a communication tool, both child and parent have fewer moments of frustration that stem from a lack of communication. Tantrums decrease, and parents have found that they can discipline or redirect their child in public without using their voice, therefore avoiding embarrassing moments for the child.

The most frustrating age for a toddler is 17-22 months because although he is mobile and he understands what you're saying, he may not be able to communicate about what he wants. Sign language can help clarify communication between parent and child, replacing grunts and whining with clear expressions of thoughts. Children as young as 6 to 8 months old can understand the signs for "milk," "more," and "all done." Between 8 and 12 months, children often begin signing "more" when they are out of Cheerios or would like another push on a swing, or they will sign "all done" when they have had enough to eat or want to leave the mall. Once children start speaking, parents have found that signs help fill in the gaps until the child is able to intelligibly communicate all the thoughts he wants to share.

4. Sign Language Provides a Strong Foundation for Early Literacy

Signs make books more meaningful to babies. Your child can be an active participant in story time, labeling pictures and predicting what comes next in their favorite books. This kind of participation and interaction helps children understand the similarities and differences between concepts. When they first learn the sign for "dog," they may generalize it and label all mammals in a book "dog." Once the parent has helped them learn to see the distinguishing features of a dog, a horse and a bear, they can then learn to generalize the sign for "dog" to the family pet, a stuffed animal and the star of Blue's Clues, given appropriate feedback from adults.

5. Sign Language Stimulates Intellectual Development

Participation in reading activities, along with the vocabulary boost inherent in early communication, lead to stronger early reading skills. Marilyn Daniels, author of Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy (Bergin & Garvey, 2001), found in her research that hearing students in pre-kindergarten who had the benefit of adding the visual and kinesthetic (movement) elements of sign language to verbal and written language scored significantly higher on standardized vocabulary tests than hearing students with no sign instruction. Adding sign language to verbal communication has been found to help enhance a preschool child's vocabulary, spelling and early reading skills.

Conclusion

Many parents find that using Sign Language with their baby stimulates language development, strengthens the parent-infant bond and provides a window into their baby's world. For information on classes, books and videos, please see Tiny Fingers

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Eileen Ladino is the founder of Tiny Fingers. She earned an MA in Deaf Education from Gallaudet University and has 15 years of experience as a teacher of both deaf and hearing students and as a freelance sign language interpreter. She is now experiencing the joy of using American Sign Language with her own hearing daughter and is dedicated to improving communication between babies and their parents & caregivers through her tiny fingers classes and materials.