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Look Who's Talking in Sign Language

Jump-Start on Speech

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Zero To Three, a nonprofit organization aimed at promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers, says no matter what style parents adopt, they should continue to use their voices when they sign.

"Many babies gesture before they talk. They point. They reach. They do all kinds of things. This is just formalizing the system a little more," says Victoria Youcha, EDD, a child development specialist with the national organization. "I think it's fine, as long as it's enjoyable for both parent and child."

Parents should not push signing on their children, experts say. Infants do not learn through formal instruction. The best way to get started is for parents to incorporate signs into their everyday situations with their babies. If your baby points to a dog, tell him what it is and use a sign for it. If your daughter is eating dinner, ask verbally if she would like more milk and make the sign.

"It is the simplest thing in the world," Acredolo says. "The prototype is how you teach your baby 'bye bye.' You say the word. You emphasize it and you do this hand-waving thing. You do it frequently enough and your baby makes the connection."

Garcia offers these suggestions for signing with babies:

  • Never ask a child to do sign language involving unfamiliar things.
  • Don't ask your child to show off her/his signing abilities to others.
  • Don't compare your child to other children.
  • Don't show disappointment if your child chooses not to sign in a particular situation.
  • Don't make signing with your baby a lesson, but use signs in your daily life as an augmentation to your speech.  Don't teach, just sign.  Let your baby discover.
  • Reward your child's attempts to communicate so that he/she receives love and acceptance when he/she makes those first attempts to connect with you.
  • Try not to overanticipate and overrespond to your child's needs.  Otherwise, your infant may seldom have need-driven opportunities to communicate.  Allow a few seconds or moments for your child to search for and discover her/his internal resources.

Kimberly Sanchez is a freelance writer in St. Louis and a frequent contributor to WebMD. She also has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Dallas Morning News.

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