Baby sign language helps ease frustration, communication of young children

Say goodbye to 'goo goo ga ga'

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Your baby is throwing a tantrum, but you can’t figure out why. Frustrating, right? Probably not just for you.

Although a baby can understand you, he or she is not able to communicate back, which may be what’s behind the meltdowns.

“It’s very frustrating when you’re trying desperately to communicate with someone and they don’t understand what you’re saying,” said Jacki Brucher Moore, mother of two and communications professor at Kirkwood Community College. “The life of a pre-linguistic child is frustrating enough.”

Many parents are turning to baby sign language to ease the tension.

Moore tried it with her firstborn son, Zac, when he was 3 months old — though many parents start around the 6- to 8-month mark, or whenever their baby begins to develop dexterity.

Children already use sounds and gestures to try to communicate early on, so baby sign language is a “natural fit,” said Melanie Nollsch, early childhood professor at Kirkwood.

However, using gestures a child already is making is just one of two schools of thought associated with baby sign language, said Tammy Bayer, owner of Birth, Baby and Beyond in Cedar Rapids. The other is to teach formal American Sign Language, which is what she did with her daughter, Gabriella, now 12, who today still uses the ASL she learned as a baby.

Although most children will lose the ability to sign as they develop their speech, it’s a good opportunity to try to introduce another language, which may “stimulate the brain” and help develop verbal and manual skills, said Kimberly Lestina, Grant Wood Area Education Agency itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing.

“They’ll learn to communicate and be able to problem-solve and manage language at a younger age,” she said.

But teaching formal sign language or signs from a specific program isn’t absolutely necessary, Moore said.

“You don’t really need to follow the rules,” she said. “Babies are already in the process of learning your language, so it’s not that you’re trying to teach them sign language, it’s that you’re trying to fill in the gap so that you can communicate until they learn your language.”

By paying attention to your baby’s nonverbals — watching and listening to the movements they’re already making — you’re able to interpret the messages they may be trying to send.

“If you can pick up on a behavior that they’re already doing, you just adopt that sign and the symbol means whatever the two of you agree it means,” she said.

The first sign she and her son “agreed on” was milk — a repeated clasping of the fingers. Then it was “more,” “eat,” “drink,” “all done,” “stop” and “be quiet.”

Some baby sign language programs offer nearly 100 signs, but most families only need a handful to make their lives easier, Nollsch said.

Some kids catch on right away — Gabriella, for example, was signing back to her mother in less than a week and already speaking when she turned 1 — while others might not. It just depends on the child, Bayer said.

“Not everything is going to work 100 percent for everybody, but most families find some part of signing that works for them,” she said.

The key to making it stick is repetition and context, Bayer explained.

When you give your baby milk, for example, you should stick to one sign and repeat it over and over while saying the word aloud — this will give them visual context to the word and help them develop speech.

Some believe that signing also can improve cognitive, emotional and verbal development more quickly, as well as improve the child-to-parent bond and even potentially raise a child’s IQ, though there is little evidence to back up those claims.

Still, Nollsch said she “doesn’t see any downsides” to baby sign language.

“The most important thing is that the care provider and child can understand each other,” because that’s when frustration and behavioral issues with children subside, Lestina said. “It gives them a lot more power than whining and pointing.”

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