A group of moms in Pagosa have been exploring a new way to both create community among parents, as well as communicate better with their babies.
Amy Withrow, a certified American Sign Language interpreter, with 25 years experience, agreed last fall to begin a Baby Sign class with a number of Pagosa moms and dads who’ve recognized the internationally-touted benefits of signing with young children.
Since October, a group of about 10 local parents and their babies have been meeting with Withrow, to learn simple signs and how they can be used to facilitate communication with babies.
“I’d heard a lot about Baby Sign,” said a student in the class, and mother of two, Carre Sutton. “We just moved to Pagosa recently, and I’d been trying to find and create community here. I needed to get to know other moms and I’d heard great things about baby sign.”
Another mom in the class — Jaime deGraaf — with a 4-month-old son, Townes — had similar things to say about the class. “This has been such a great way for me to meet other moms and for Townes to be around other babies,” said deGraaf.
“It’s really great to build community around something as constructive and helpful for our kids as Baby Sign,” said class member Laura Seiler, mother of 13-month-old Ruby.
The research and development of “Sign with your Baby” was born from an experience that creator Joseph Garcia had while visiting the family of a deaf friend. There he saw a baby, around 10 months old, communicating with his parents in a much more sophisticated way than he had seen with hearing children of hearing parents the same age: the child was using American Sign Language. Garcia was so impressed, he decided to make it the focus of his research. He discovered that hearing children began replicating signs as early as eight months, with some exceptional children as early as 6 months.
This new discovery seriously challenged the opinion of many child development experts, including Jean Piaget, who theorized that babies can’t mentally represent symbols until they are almost 2, and therefore can’t learn to talk until then. Instead, it appears that infants are lacking in the fine motor skills necessary to produce spoken language, not the conceptual ability to understand and use language. Garcia also found that once the signing children began speaking, they tended to have a better grasp of grammar and syntax, past and present tenses, and of language in general.
Recent and current scientific research continues to support his findings. Parents and teachers who participate in these studies indicate that they experience reduced frustration, stronger bonds with their babies, and that their children have an increased interest in books.
Locally, this research seems to bear out, according to the moms of Withrow’s baby sign class.
“I sign with Kaya, my 8-month-old, and Jade, my two year old,” said Sutton. “It has been great for Jade to see what we’re doing with Kaya, because she’s picked it up really quickly. She’s in that stage of having gnarly temper tantrums. She’s really bright, but at this age, she can’t always express her needs, so signing helps her communicate with us. And Jade signs with Kaya too. It’s a great way for them to interact with each other.
“Just this morning,” Sutton added, Jade was signing and asking Kaya: ‘Hungry, Kaya? Hungry?’ It really helps her feel like she’s being a good big sister.”
Another Baby Sign class member, Mikiko Ellis said, “Even though Violet (11 months) hasn’t been using the signs herself yet, I definitely think she recognizes certain signs. It’s a great way to communicate, because if she is getting upset because she’s hungry or something, and I can sign food or something else she needs to her, and she calms down.”
Withrow emphasized this connection that Baby Sign allows parents to make with their children’s needs. “I think that it can strengthen their bond, because it gives parents a window into the thought processes and personality of their child long before they can actually get that verbally. We always wonder what a baby is thinking, but why wait until your baby can tell you in words, when you can start a year or so earlier than that? Baby Sign helps with concepts and sequencing which helps lessen frustration. It gives kids a sense of security and safety when they know what’s going to happen. So for example, you can sign to your baby that ‘we’re going to eat, have a bath, read a book, and then go to sleep.’ When babies know what’s coming, they’re not surprised, and they might be more satisfied knowing they will get the things they need.”.
Other researchers, independent of the work of Joseph Garcia, back up these assertions. Dr. Kimberlee Whaley, associate professor of human development and family science at Ohio State’s College of Human Ecology, has also studied the benefits of signing with hearing children. Her pilot study found that using American Sign Language signs in a pre-school setting greatly reduced the frustration for preverbal children and their teachers.
“It is much easier for our teachers to work with 12-month-olds who can sign that they want their bottle, rather than just cry and have us try to figure out what they want. This is a great way for infants to express their needs before they can verbalize them,” said Whaley.
But staving off frustration is by no means the only benefit to Baby Sign. The developmental advantages are numerous.
“I think Baby Sign expands Townes’ mind,” said deGraaf. “It helps him understand that communication is about more than just words, and it gives him lots of ways to make a connection with us and to understand things better.”
“It’s done so much for Ruby developmentally,” said Seiler. “She tries to say a word when she signs it. So she is practicing oral, visual and kinesthetic language. It gives her three ways to communicate. It’s great that signing is a very kinesthetic language, because babies are very kinesthetic themselves. They love to be able to do something with their bodies.”
As Withrow pointed out, Baby Sign is a great way to help babies connect with what’s happening in their worlds anyway. “Parents aren’t actually teaching the signs, they just incorporate the signs into their lives with the baby,” she said. “This program is geared towards concepts babies are learning at this stage in their life anyway. They sign about what’s in their world. And they sign about things that are fun, like music, books, and animals.”
Garcia recommends to teachers of Baby sign, and parents who want to try it to start simple with the words, “milk,” “more” and “eat.”
“This helps babies express their wants,” Garcia explains in his materials for teachers and parents. For more on Garcia’s research, visit www.sign2me.com.
The current Baby Sign class in Pagosa will be drawing to a close in a few weeks, and Withrow is not sure of her future schedule of signing classes, but she would like to continue to offer this service to both parents and child care providers for babies in Pagosa.
As Whaley’s research pointed out, signing with babies in a child care setting can be a great way for babies and caregivers to understand each other better.
“Additionally,” said Withrow, “the best way to maximize the benefits of baby sign is to have as many people in the baby’s life signing to the baby as possible, Withrow explained. Childcare professionals, grandparents, siblings, friends, the more people who sign with the baby, the more valuable the signing will be to the baby’s development.”
Withrow welcomes phone calls or e-mails from parents or daycare providers who are interested in learning more about her classes. She said that when she contacts interested students, she will attempt to schedule a class that will work for everyone. You can page Amy Withrow at 382-4483 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.