Sign of the times

Parents use sign language to give their infants an outlet for expression
Sunday, January 14, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:08 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jack Burton giggles with laughter at his older sister and tells her that he thinks she’s funny by rubbing the top of his nose. This is just one of the signs the 13-month-old toddler has been taught in order to express his thoughts before he develops the skills to talk.

Katie Burton, Jack’s mother, has been using American Sign Language with her two children to learn better communication skills as a family. She and Jack attended a weekly class during the summer at Kindermusik called “Sign and Sing” that teaches parents and children, from 6 months to 3 years old, more than 50 signs to communicate in their daily lives.

By the end of the first half of the summer session, Burton said, her son could “put the back of his hand to his mouth to indicate he wanted food and could clap his hands together to indicate he wanted more.”

When children of an early age are unable to communicate their needs and wishes to someone, they can become frustrated and throw tantrums. With the use of adult forms of sign language, such as American Sign Language, and more simple versions of sign language such as Baby Sign, infants can learn to express their needs before they are able to produce understandable speech.

“Babies who are not able to form words yet can more easily communicate with their parents using Baby Sign,” Sharryn Walker, clinical associate in MU’s College of Education said. “They discover that it’s a way to say something that they want as opposed to screaming and throwing a plate.”

Studies have shown that hand-eye coordination is easier than the coordination of speech, which requires using the lips, tongue, breath and vocal chords simultaneously, Walker said.

The trend of using Baby Sign is growing, but is not widespread. This is partially due to fear that children who learn to sign will not learn to speak properly later on in life, Walker said. All available research, however, shows that children who sign as infants go on to develop particularly rich spoken vocabularies, as well as a tendency to solve problems through communication rather than tantrums.

Easter Seals, a Columbia child care center, uses sign language with their infants, toddlers and preschoolers. Mary Priest, a teacher at Easter Seals, finds using Baby Sign with the infants in her class integral to communication.

“There are sign language pictures around the room for infants,” Priest said. “There are signs for different food items like ‘bananas’ or ‘apples,’ there’s one for ‘sleep’ and ‘hungry’ and many others.”

Despite the help it provides children when they’re younger, research shows that the effects even out over time and that learning to use sign language doesn’t make a difference in learning capabilities later on, Walker said. Priest, however, said that learning sign at an infant age helps the language stick more easily when they’re older.

“I taught my daughter when she was an infant, and now that she’s older, if she sees signing she can recall what a lot of it means from her memory,” Priest said.

Baby Sign proves to be not only a pop culture trend that Robert De Niro uses with his grandson in “Meet the Fockers,” but also helps to form a special bond between parent and child before the child can form the words to say “mom” or “dad.”

Burton has noticed her daughter, Emma, 5, becoming more enthusiastic about signing again now that Jack is learning the skill.

“This is something that brings them together and helps her to tell Jack when he’s taking her things or not being nice and know for sure that he’s understanding what she’s trying to tell him,” Burton said.

— Amy Rymer contributed to this report

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