Sign of the Times

By , Staff Writer
September 2005

Just can’t wait to communicate with your baby? You might consider letting their fingers do the talking.

A new trend in child development promises less frustrated, intellectually stimulated babies who can talk by the time they are one year old. No kidding. It’s called American Sign Language and plenty of parents in West University are signing up their babies.

“It helped her,” says West U mom Lauren Salomon of her daughter’s signing. “I knew she was anxious to be able to communicate. It was very frustrating for her not to talk and she seemed to cry all the time. Now she is a very talkative little girl.”

Bellaire’s Helen Swiff-Goodman’s little boy made her a believer. “He started signing milk, eat and more at about nine or ten months. I mean it was really early and then he had a huge vocabulary of signs before he was one year old and even when he started talking he would still sign.”

Rachel, 15 months, signs her approximate version of “hurt” to her mom, recounting a head bump earlier in the day. (Photo courtesy of Signing Smart TM)

The baby sign language movement for hearing babies kicked off about five years ago and its momentum has grown ever since. Sales of baby sign videos are booming. In July, Disney complemented its mega popular Baby Einstein series with a video devoted exclusively to signing. And you may have caught the cute blonde on the silver screen signing for milk in last year’s film Meet the Fockers.

It’s pretty well known babies crave communication long before they can talk. There’s plenty of proof for any parent in the unruly wails, ear-splitting screams and crocodile tears. So why are simple signs like “hungry,” “please” or “finished” quieting homes by calming toddlers?

“They can communicate what they need or what’s interesting to them even though the development required for speaking takes much longer,” says Beryt Nisenson, an instructor at Imagination Signers. “It (signing) takes advantage of both the gross motor control and comprehension skills that kids start to have between five and nine months.”

Eager for any means to better bringing up baby, Allison Nisbet of Bellaire ambitiously mastered 60 signs to teach daughter, Taylor. What initially appeared to be boredom by her baby quite suddenly gave way to brilliance. By the time she was 14 months old, Taylor knew 50 sign words and could formulate a three word sign-sentence.

“It was amazing after a while; we could have a conversation with her when no one else could talk to their child,” Nisbet says, adding that her two-year-old now speaks in complete paragraphs.

Exceptional? Yes. Uncommon? No. Turns out babies who learn sign language usually have an average of 25 signs and 16 spoken words by their first birthday. At 18 months their inventory of signs triples and the supply of spoken words expand to a vocabulary exceeding 100.

Grasping how it works is a good bit easier than understanding why. Swiff-Goodman, a psychologist who works with deaf kids, says children simply can move their little hands first. “Research shows that it reduces the frustration for hearing kids, because the manual dexterity comes before lingual dexterity. So they can sign quite easily,” she explains.

What’s also becoming clear is that a little one need not learn a whole catalog of signs to open the lines of parent-child communication.

“At ten months he wasn’t saying much,” says Tandy Harris, mother of Zach, who took Nisenson’s Signing Smart course in Rice Village. “It turned out really great because I felt more of a sense of communication after he learned to sign, he would point to the light and open and close his hands or he would point to the fan and swirl his fingers. And it was like wow – he really is trying to tell me something,” she shared.

Therein lies signing’s potentially invaluable capacity to prevent problems months before they emerge.

“Babies want to tell you what is going on with them,” contends instructor Nisenson. “Unless you can share their communication, you’re going to have a huge breakdown.”

It’s only fair to note the “sign movement” also has its share of detractors, concerned this alternatives to verbal communication can hinder speech development.

But that’s a tough sell to West U Moms like Jill Mercado, whose son, Ryan, has been slow to speak. “When he’s in his high chair and crying he is either hungry or finished eating. It really helps to know what he wants.”

And it’s in these once frustrating moments when the sudden intelligent flow of tiny fingers can make all the difference. A connection enabled by a silent language – both taught and learned as a labor of love.