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Baby talk

Parents use sign language to communicate with tots

The 18-month-old pointed to her mouth, grimaced and made the sign for 'pain.' Then, pressing her middle finger to the palm of her other hand, she made the sign for 'medicine.' Without uttering a word, the baby let her mom know she was teething.

The story so amazed Nicole Foland when she heard it from a sign-language teacher that she began learning sign language so she could teach her son, Mason, then 6 months old.

'I thought, if I can teach him sign language, then when something's bothering him, maybe he'll be able to communicate with me,' Foland says.

Foland is part of a growing community of hearing parents who are teaching their hearing children to sign before they can talk. Advocates say that in the short term these babies are happier and less frustrated. In the long term, they might even be smarter.

To help parents get started, there are Web sites, books, videos and in most major cities, including Portland baby signing classes. Most instructors borrow signs from American Sign Language, the same language used by deaf people.

'Children tend to gain control over the muscles in their hands and arms before the muscles in their tongue and mouth,' says Reyna Lindert, who teaches baby sign-language classes in Portland. 'That's why they can sign months before they can say words.'

You can start showing signs to your baby anytime, but experts say children don't have the skills to sign back until they're at least 8 months old. Lindert recommends starting between 6 and 12 months.

Then comes the hard part waiting for your baby to sign back. For some babies this takes a couple of weeks. For others the wait can be a couple of months or longer.

'I just would (sign) when I was talking to him, in hopes that some day he would do it back,' Foland says. Two months later, Mason curled his fingers and twisted his wrist. His mom wasn't sure he was making the sign for 'milk' (think milking a cow), but it was close enough that she ran downstairs and made him a bottle.

'I wanted to reinforce the meaning behind the sign,' she says.

Foland attends weekly play classes to learn new signs. Usually the babies are more interested in eating the toys. For them, most of the learning happens at home, where they are less distracted and more motivated by their natural environment.

In starting to sign, parents should ask themselves, 'If my baby could talk, what would she say?' Those are the words you should begin with, says Dawn Prochovnic, a Portland sign-language teacher whose first pupil was her own daughter.

'My baby was really interested in watermelon, but some babies couldn't care less about watermelon,' she says.

It can take babies several months to master their first seven to 10 signs, Prochovnic says, but from then on their signing vocabulary explodes. They start asking for new signs and putting signs together to form sentences.

By 11 months, Jody Oliver's daughter, Delaney, was asking for 'more food' and 'more book.' Now, at 22 months, Delaney knows hundreds of signs and uses them in combination with words.

Parents may fear that teaching children sign language could delay their speech. But a study conducted by child development experts Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn and funded by the National Institutes of Health found just the opposite. The researchers tested 103 babies, starting when the babies were 11 months old and continuing until they were 3. The study, published in 2000, in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, found that babies who used sign language spoke earlier and understood more than babies who didn't.

'Just because a baby learns to crawl, it doesn't decrease their interest in learning to walk,' says Acredolo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. 'In fact, it motivates them even more. Baby signing is the same way. It excites them about communicating.'

It may also increase their IQ, says Acredolo, who has been studying baby sign language for more than two decades. Five years after her original study, she tracked down many of the same children and gave them IQ tests. Those who had used sign language as babies had a 12-point advantage.

However, parents shouldn't pursue sign language with the belief that it's going to make their child smarter, says Donna Boudreau, a speech pathologist and assistant professor at Portland State University. Boudreau says the children in the study may have scored higher on language and IQ tests because their parents also spent more time talking with them.

Boudreau says exposing your baby to sign language certainly isn't going to hurt, but if you really want to enhance your baby's verbal development you should talk to her more.

Jody Oliver's daughter didn't learn to talk any faster than other kids. Her mom doesn't know if she's smarter. But she says that's not why she taught Delaney sign language. She did it to make her own life easier.

'Instead of a 2-year-old throwing themselves down on the ground, not being able to get what they want,' she says, 'they just show you what they want, or tell you what they want.'