I wrote this article while interning with Tribune Company. The article was ultimately published all over Tribune’s multiple properties, including the Chicago Tribune.
Snack time is going wonderfully until your baby begins screaming, throwing Cheerios on the floor. Perturbed and not understanding, you attempt to put her down for a nap. She throws a temper tantrum and you both end up agitated and confused. For most parents, this scenario is quite possible. Babies can’t talk. They haven’t had time to work the muscles that control their vocal cords, nor do they know how to coordinate their breathing, mouth movement and tongue placement to produce speech. But this does not mean they cannot communicate.
The Cheerio incident happened to Laura Berg, a teacher of baby sign, who promotes teaching toddlers hand signs in place of spoken language. Her daughter, Fireese (pronounced fur-eez), was trained in baby sign. While she was throwing her Cheerios on the ground, Fireese was also signing the word “more.” Laura asked “more what?” and her daughter responded “more cheese.” “The fact that my ten-month old could put together two words in sign, and say she wanted something salty rather than sweet was amazing to me,” said Berg.
Indeed, signing is proven to increase vocabulary in children before they utter their first word. Fireese is now three, and is reading years ahead of her age group. Berg runs a baby sign company called “My Smart Hands.” Her daughter is “the most popular signing baby on the Internet.” A video of her signing has gotten more than one million views on YouTube. Berg has spoken at universities across the country and has formal training in education. There are numerous Web sites for teaching baby sign, via class instruction, in-home videos, games and online dictionaries.
“We all teach our babies sign language, very simple signs, like waving bye-bye or clapping to express delight, or pointing. So by adding to these natural gestures that we’re teaching we can give them more useful signs so that they are less frustrated,” said Kathleen Waidhofer, who began Baby Hand Productions. She said some common first signs to teach a baby are eat, drink, milk and more.
Baby sign is also versatile, lending itself to the classroom setting as well as a bridge between languages and to help special education children. “As an educator, having some special needs kids in my room, other teachers would say ‘why don’t you use this sign for me or this sign for potty,'” said LynnMarie Wood, a preschool teacher who signs with her two adopted children. “My daughter was adopted from China at 15 months. She had no Chinese; she had never been exposed to English. We started with signs in China, so even before we left, she was using some basics. She picked up ‘more’ and ‘all done,'” said Wood.
“The most popular reason for signing is early communication,” said Berg. By being in communication with your child, temper tantrums and frustration is limited. Sign has taken off in the last decade dispelling negative effects as scientific studies and word of mouth proved otherwise. Studies at Ohio State University and other institutions have shown overwhelmingly positive results.
“Parents always ask, ‘are there any drawbacks?’ I think parents are worried that they are going to rely on sign and that it will inhibit their speech. That is 100 percent untrue,” explained Berg. Children begin speaking at different ages, and little can be done to advance this age. By signing, parents can ensure a means to communicate with their child. When their child does begin speaking, he or she will more quickly learn words, Berg explains.
“I think people are very receptive to it. I especially think that educated, upper-middle class people are receptive to it. Educated people, in a higher socio-economic class seem to be open to more innovative ways of learning and exposing their kids to different ways to learning,” said Wood. Mainstream coverage, such as in the movie “Meet the Parents,” has also contributed. As generation X and Y comes of age, they may be more attuned to newer education methods with the Internet providing a wealth of options. Many online baby sign dictionaries are available, as well as informational sites.
“After you’ve taken care of the basic needs, probably one of the most human needs is to be understood. If you offer your baby five to 10 signs before they are able to speak, it will solve a lot of frustration and help you bond… All babies can sign,” said Waidhofer.