Baby Sign Language in the Hudson Valley

How the new trend can help your child's verbal development

Baby signing has been gaining in popularity in the Hudson Valley. It allows babies who haven't learned to talk yet get their point across. They’ll gurgle and point at something they want, wave bye-bye, or raise their hands to “tell” mommy or daddy to pick them up.

(This month's cover kid, Talia Walker signs with her older sister, Lian)

Some parents and professionals are taking this a step further and teaching simple sign language to kids who can’t yet vocalize their feelings. Known as baby sign language, baby sign or infant sign language, the technique can help bridge the communication gap until a child learns to speak. In some cases, it’s also useful for children with developmental problems, such as speech or learning disabilities.

Most types of baby sign language use specific hand shapes that are sometimes a modified version of American Sign Language, which is traditionally used to communicate with the deaf. Basic words like hungry, sleepy, milk, wet and more are often used in baby sign language, although the vocabulary can become as extensive as the child and parents or caregivers choose.

Getting started with baby sign language.

Children pick it up quickly
“We use sign language with our infants and toddlers,” says Nicole Bonelli, site director at the Infant Toddler Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. “We teach basic signs such as more, eat, all done and milk — pairing the sign with the word and the action. We use the signs ‘in the moment’ with children as these experiences happen naturally throughout the day.”

The technique is definitely valuable, Bonelli says. “It’s incredible how quickly the children pick up the signs and begin to use their interpretation of them with us during the day.”

A key advantage to using sign language: “We find that it decreases frustration and increases our response time to meeting individual children’s needs.”
For instance, Bonelli says, “Instead of a child sitting at the snack table crying and frustrated, as we adults have to guess if the child wants more or if she is all done, she’ll just look at us and sign the appropriate sign. We are giving the children the tools to communicate clearly with us at a time when they can’t physically pronounce words but still have clear thoughts, needs and wants. We think sign language is an incredible gift that we are giving to children, parents and caregivers.”

(Zoza Rose from Poughkeepsie is signing "more, please.")

Origins of infant signing
Baby signing first began to take off when California researchers Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn formulated the technique in the 1980s, with funding from the National Institute of Health.

The researchers noted that babies often substitute motions for things they can’t say – perhaps sniffing for flower or panting for dog. They then formulated a series of simple sign-gestures for kids.

The results were encouraging. Acredolo and Goodwyn found, in a study of more than 140 families, that children who had learned signing as infants generally used longer sentences than non-signers when they later began to speak. And by age three, kids who had signed as babies tended to have vocabularies that were up to a year beyond those of non-signers.

Speech and language therapist Diane Ryan, founder of the national state-of-Florida-based KinderSigns program and website, points out that while babies who sign tend to have IQs that are at least 10-12 points higher than non-signers, there’s another key reason for signing.

“Research has shown that babies who sign are less frustrated, since they have a way of expressing their wants and needs. Simply put, they cry less,” she says. And non-cranky, non-frustrated babies make parents happier, too.
Grace McCoy is a writer/editor who lives in the Hudson Valley.