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Look Who's Talking in Sign Language

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"A baby enjoys the whole experience of communicating so much. It is so rewarding that they search for more and better ways to communicate, and verbal language is the obvious candidate," says Acredolo, professor of psychology at the University of California-Davis. "It just excites them about the entire enterprise."

Acredolo has been studying baby signs since 1982, when her daughter began sniffing to mean "flower." She set out to determine if she had remarkable offspring, or if other children were doing the same. What she found was that children 10 to 20 months old can learn gestures and use them in meaningful ways, like to tell their parents their food is too hot or that the dolls in their room scare them. The more signs the children learned, the larger their vocabularies by age 2, according to her study published last year in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior and funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.

Sophia Jordan began uttering her first words when she was 9 months old, her mother says. At 11 months, she was able to say lawnmower and broccoli. By age 1, her vocabulary consisted of 15 to 20 words.

"We know already the more language a baby hears, the faster it learns to talk," Acredolo says. "The baby signs are pulling language at earlier stages from the parents, and the baby is choosing the topic."

Her study, which included 103 children, also found that six years after children had learned signs, they continued to outperform their peers. Their mean IQ was 12 points higher than those who were not raised with gesturing, according to her research, conducted with co-author Susan Goodwyn, PhD.

"The reason to do baby signs is not to raise your baby's IQ. It is not to make them talk earlier. We feel the main goal is to smooth out the interaction between parent and child, and make that time of life much more pleasant than it would normally be," Acredolo tells WebMD. "Baby signs allow the baby to express what its needs are, what it's thinking about, and what it wants to share with you. It just makes life a heck of a lot easier."

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