How I became the crazy Baby-Signs-woman (and how you could, too!)

When I was pregnant I heard about this quirky little thing called Baby Sign Language. Apparently – I was told – babies can learn how to use sign language before they can speak. Baby Sign Language is mostly advertised as being good to reduce toddler frustration (at not being able to tell you what they really, really want right now!). I googled it and found this super-cute (if a bit manic) video:

The whole thing sounded interesting and after all if monkeys can sign, I figured my little one could, too!… But watching the video I thought “This baby can do 30 signs! That is crazy. If I do it I’ll just teach my kid about 5 or 10 signs, the really important things she needs to communicate to me – sleep, toilet, food, water… that kind of thing. Surely the woman in the video is some kind of pushy-super-uber-mom with too much time on her hands. I’ll just keep it simple and help my kid express the key things that will keep her from wigging out.” Good plan. God laughed.

At 19 months my kid had over 200 signs. How the ‘eck did that happen?!

Gzzzzzzzzzzzz – rewind a bit, again.

This is how it went down. After hearing about it, still not entirely convinced, I got out the book Baby Signs by Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn (albeit in its first edition – which is kind of sweet in its dated-ness). The book got me and I got really, really into this idea of teaching my kid to sign. I have since realised that I have a keen interest in language and watching and supporting my kid acquire hers, in general… but I didn’t know that then, this was just the start of the journey.

Through my research, I discovered sign language has a few (inter-related) advantages and I liked them all:

  1. It helps your baby communicate with you – telling you what is important to them and what they want you to focus on, with them
  2. It helps you know what is going on for them, opening a (super-interesting) window on your child’s mind and helping you get even closer to them
  3. It reduces the frustration, for your child, of knowing what they want but not being able to tell you
  4. It acts as a bridge to language, priming their brain to learn the to-and-fro of communication more easily and earlier
  5. It improves cognitive function and IQ – and research indicates the results are lasting
  6. It is good fun [honestly that is probably the main reason we went so far with it: because I was loving it, too]
  7. It is a great language to share as a family. You and your partner can have fun signing across a crowded room or over your kid’s head when they are not looking :p  And older siblings often love showing signs to their new little sibs :)

This book taught me many of my first signs. At this stage, though, I became convinced it would really help if both parents were on board, so I thought the easiest and most fun way to involve NinjaDad would be to go to a class – so he/we could learn in a social setting. As luck would have it, a friend decided to host a class at her house – so we joined that one. The instructor would come in and teach us, on a weekend – perfect! And so it was that NinjaDad started to get really excited by it, too.

We taught our kid her first sign when she was six months old. That sign was food and I repeated it every time she had a meal. She signed her first word when she was nine months old. That means there was a three month gap in which I was signing frantically to her and I was getting nothing back. I almost gave up. Her first sign was ‘fan’ – as in ceiling fan. Her next two signs were ‘duck’ and ‘light’. She didn’t sign ‘food’ until she was over a year old (and had well over 50 signs under her belt). That taught me my first lesson: she is going to be most enthusiastic and motivated to sign about the things that she finds interesting not about the things I think are important. Hahahah! I guess I should be flattered, as a mom, that she never felt she had an urgent need to ask for food…
Then we just kept going. I was forever wondering when we’d stop. Oh, I’ll only teach her 50 or so. But then we’d get to 50 and her thirst for knowing more and more would egg me on. She would point at things and look at me expectantly. So I bought a book, initially a simple ASL visual dictionary, so I could look up the signs she wanted to learn from me. Eventually that book stopped fulfilling all our needs (as it was not geared to kids, I guess) and I caughtened on to the fact that the easiest way to look up signs is online. And we were off. Her signed vocab kept growing and growing. And, alongside, her first words were coming in, too.
Then, at around 18 months there was a shift, and her interest in spoken words became much more acute than her interest in signs. At 19 months, as I said, she had just over 200 signs and coincidentally she had 200 spoken words, too (yes I kept lists). And that is where it stopped. She just started acquiring so many new spoken words and at such a speed that she seemed to have no need for signs any more. She was off.
And here is that other thing they say about signers: they sometimes use spoken words a little later, but they catch up quickly and often overtake the ‘average’ non-signing kid. Signing kids tend to have an aptitude for language, acquiring new words and moving on to complex sentences earlier than otherwise expected.
Honestly it is hard to tell for me. Most of my AP friends’ babies have stupidly large vocabs for their ages. And, of course, Anya (giving up on nicknames!!) is billingual, too, so goodness knows what that does to all this but I can say (with frank admiration) that at 21 months she speaks in five and six word sentences, with aplomb.
Yes, some of it is ‘nature’. Some kids are more interested in language than others, of course. But I am also convinced (and studies show) that there is more to it, too. There are things that help your kid develop language (and subsequently boost their IQ), such as:
  • speaking with them, describing the world and what you are doing, ‘narrating’ your day
  • developing ‘shared focus’ – speaking about what they are  looking at or interacting with in that moment, following their natural interest
  • getting down at eye level and letting them read your lips, literally (giving them valuable information about how to form their mouths around the words)
  • reading books, singing songs together, having fun with language and sounds
  • being supportive, positive and responsive when children attempt to communicate, in any form

and

  • teaching kids sign-language
So, if your baby is between say 4 and 14 months old and you want to teach them sign language, here are some tips for starting:
  1. get a book on baby sign language (from the library?) to get you into it and/or
  2. go online and read more about the history and benefits of it
  3. go to a local Baby Signs or baby ASL class or
  4. just jump right in: go straight to a sign language site and learn a few signs to teach your baby and then follow their lead on which to learn next
  5. involve your partner and other family members
  6. be consistent – keep repeating the sign every time the object or action appears in your shared field of view
  7. make sure you sign about what they are interested in or looking at at the time (try not to direct them to look at things, so much – it is more effective to ‘sports-cast’ the world from their eye’s view than to try to get them to look at what we think they should/would be interested in, all the time)
  8. be patient – depending on your kid’s age and how consistent you are with it, it could take many months before they produce their first sign back to you. The younger the child, the longer it takes
  9. check-out the Baby Sign books for kids for another cute way to show your kid some signs – and let them think they can ‘read’
  10. have fun with it, include lots of silly, playful signs. Does your child play with your kitty a lot? Learn the sign for cat. Does your kid love balloons? That is a super-sweet sign.

And remember ASL is a real language (sorry if that is too obvious to bear!) which means that your kid will be (at least) billingual if you teach them ASL. If you keep it up with them, which some families chose to do, it opens a world of opportunity up to them: ASL can be taken for credit in College, it can lead to a career or vocation in interpreting or teaching sign language (for the kids or the hearing impaired) and, perhaps most importantly, it can help communicate with a group of people, a community which otherwise can be so separate from this hearing community of ours. This could even be a small step in bringing these two worlds closer. But let’s keep it basic for now. After all, I am the ‘crazy baby signs woman’, my kid knows 200 signs which means I know considerably more than that and I still can’t really communicate with a true signer. I can’t keep up. But this is a step, a fun step in the right direction and a great leap for your kid’s language skills. Do it. I promise you’ll (eventually) have lots of fun with it!

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Did you teach your kid(s) signing? How was it for you? Did they take to it? Did you find you became the crazy-sign-language-parent, too?

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P.S. this post is littered with links – check ’em out for more tips, research and resources.
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Blog re-branding: Loving Earth Mama

Hi guys,

So as you know I have been thinking deeply for a while now about how or whether to continue this blog. My solution (for now at least) is to continue this blog in a slightly new way. This shift has been happening already gradually over the last few weeks. Here are some of the changes:

  • New look – I am thinking you noticed that :)
  • The blog’s name. You may have noticed  also that I changed the blog’s name from ‘The Blessing Tree’ to ‘Loving Earth Mama’. I have used the moniker ‘Loving Earth’ for many years now in different online media. I immediately thought of it when I was registering this blog, unfortunately it had already been taken as a WordPress blog name (by a cute environmental blog so I did not begrudge them)… so I had to come up with something else. But in truth I never thought ‘The Blessing Tree’ really fit this blog. Now I have bought the domain ‘Loving Earth Mama’ and really like it. I hope you like it too.
  • There are now ‘Wordless Wednesdays‘ – which capture a mothering or toddler moment in photo form. This is following a well-established mama-blogging convention which appealed to me (as an amateur photographer)…plus it is nice to have a break from ‘words’ but still share the joy for your parenting journey.  They are not always ‘great’ photos in the technical sense. Sometimes they really just are snapshots of a moment that touched my heart like this one, for example. Others worked out as both photos I like technically and which capture some toddler fun I want to remember, like this one.
  • I have been slowly moving from purely describing my experience and Anya’s milestones in a journal-type fashion toward a more reflective and broader style of writing which I hope will both represent more mother/parent’s experiences and act as a springboard for people to discuss or think about their own approach to parenting.
  • There is now a facebook page – open to all – linked to this blog which we can use as an easy, open and accessible forum to discuss any topics and issues that come up for us directly in relation to blog posts here at Loving Earth Mama or in general, out in the world. Topics related to conscious mothering, healthy childhood, gentle discipline, etc.

Topics on this blog will continue to include (among many others, no doubt):

  • Attachment Parenting
  • Baby Sign Language
  • Breastfeeding
  • Healthy Eating for Mamas, Kiddos and Whole Families
  • Mothering as Spiritual Practice

Do join me (and join in on the debates on facebook, here or in your own homes, even) as this wonderful, surprising, challenging and fun journey of motherhood continues. Thank you all. In joy,

Gauri

How my daughter continues to blow my little mind with her little hands

Mommy’s swelling pride means the first thing I want to share with you all is Anya’s signing progress. I just find this whole ‘human learning to communicate’ journey endlessly fascinating. Anya seems to pick things up so quickly. I have to tell someone or I’ll burst! I try not to go on about it (too much) in person, in mommy groups or the like… but yeah, with you guys I let it out, to get the bragging out of my system, so to speak. Anyway, we all know all babies are amazing and to each of us our own baby is the best – of course – and to each of us it is, of course, true. Here is my truth:

At one year old (yes Anya has turned one!! – awesome) Anya now has over 50 signs. She went through another cognitive-development spurt, clearly. For a couple of weeks she was picking up signs at a rate of up to 2 a day – just fantastic to watch. She has also been building her repertoire of ‘words’ (with sounds for sleeping, pig and, the old classic: fart) so that brings her overall vocab to about 60 concepts.

Baby sign language improves our life in a myriad of small and great ways. One of my fave signs is ‘music’. When I am out with Anya in the baby-carrier she’ll sign for me to sing to her and then, when I stop, she signs for ‘more’. I love it. It is like having an audience cheer and shout encore. I also really enjoy that she calls food ‘mmm’ (not a sign, I know, but cute). There are not many people who greet my food with so much enthusiasm. Got to love that. Other favourite signs include computer, ‘there is none’/empty, tree and sleep (as in ‘dada is sleeping on the bed and snoring like a pig’ – I kid you not, she has pretty much signed that whole sentence… or at least that sentiment).

Anya also now has combinations of signs like ‘more milk’. Or she’ll combine sign and sounds by doing something like sign ‘where is’ and add the word ‘dada’. Cute and clever, no?

The other thing I think is fab about signing is the insight it gives me into the thought processes of a pre-verbal baby. For example, if we are indoors playing and Anya suddenly signs ‘bird’ it can take me a few seconds to realise she is saying she just heard a bird, outside. Who knew babies can hear and identify things out of sight, even when seemingly concentrating on an activity at hand?

So you can see, I am more and more sold on this signing thing. It is a lot of work, or at least it was to get it going in the start. It kind of has its own momentum now and is just fun, so that keeps us motivated. But I really enjoy it and I can see what a kick Anya gets from it, each time we respond appropriately to a request or communication of hers. She gets a real glint of joy and recognition in her eye. I can’t imagine not signing now and I find myself wondering how other moms communicate to their babies: how do they know what they want, what excites them, what they are thinking about? I know they make do but it seems so much more practical and rewarding to sign, now that I am into it. I’ll fully admit I do it as much for me as for Anya but she is clearly getting a lot out of it and I have read the research results: this stuff has positive impact on learning for life, not just as toddlers. I am lucky I stumbled across signing and grateful I stuck with it. Thanks California for your crazy hippy parenting ways!

What’s the baby sign for ‘this is awesome’?

Cover of "Baby Signs"

Cover of Baby Signs

We had our first baby signing class the other day. It was very sweet. I had read the Baby Signs book a couple of months back and got totally sold on the idea of signing to my baby. Why, you ask?

Well, a lot of parents around here sign to their babies which got me curious about it, in the first place. Originally, I thought I might do it with just a few words (like food, milk, toilet, water – basic stuff she might want to get my attention about). I thought it would help us bridge the few months between Anya knowing what she wants and being able to express it clearly and efficiently. My reasoning was that that would reduce the guessing for me and the frustration for her. Then I read the book and my view of what this could do for us expanding considerably.

It turns out teaching your baby sign language (which they can master well before then can speak) essentially teaches them the basic principles of communication (the give and take, to and fro, negotiation and the ability to describe, request, share, etc). And this, it turns out, has lasting effects on their ability to communicate throughout life (not just as toddling cuties). A study by the book’s authors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn revealed that even when signing kids grow up and are fully eight years old they are on average a year ahead of their non-signing peers in terms of language skills. Outstanding. I never saw this coming – and neither did they, apparently. It seems having people respond to and validate their interests and desires from so early on only seems to increase babies’ appetite for learning and talking. By age two, signing babies already have on average double the vocab of non-signing children (as you basically add-in signs to their ‘word count’). But this means they are able to bring your attention to twice as many things – objects or actions. And as you know, already, if you have been following, I have really gotten into language development for my kid, so this is pretty interesting stuff to me, at this point.

I, myself, don’t know why I am so interested in language, suddenly. Perhaps it is because my mom is an English teacher (in Portugal) and has always had a love for words and language. Perhaps it is finally rubbing off on me. Maybe it is because it feels like the only part of Anya’s development I can have an influence on, at this stage, observably, at least. So much seems dictated by genes – when she’ll walk, her temperament, etc. and then there are all the immeasurables and the stuff so hard to control like personality, respect for authority, etc. Language appears to be the only area I can really pour myself into, which requires some skill and hence becomes a fun challenge.

So, we went to our first class. It turns out there is a big divide between baby signing schools. Both are based at least in part on American Sign Language (ASL). However, on one side are those who say go ahead and let your child make some signs up, encourage it even, and use others that are ‘made up’ especially for little hands and baby minds to manage. So, for example, the sign for dog with them is ‘panting’ with your tongue out, like, well, a dog. This is absolutely not an ASL sign.

The other camp teaches babies real American Sign Language. Their view is that you are giving your child an additional language which can serve them for life (and for which you can get credits at College or something – they keep referencing this, but not being American not sure I totally got it). These kids often remember being taught signing as children and want to go back and study it when they get older. Plus they say using real signs a) is totally possible for little babies (proven to be so) and b) ensures you do not make up signs which clash with or even offend the deaf community. Apparently this has happened in the past with some of the baby signs. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say you don’t want your kids doing that sign out in public where there are ASL signers!

The instructor also mentioned that often mothers who teach their kids ASL end up enjoying it so much they go forth and learn the whole system, some have even become sign language interpreters.

Having originally read the book that, though based in ASL, was all about following the baby’s lead and making it as easy as possible for them, I was quite sold on that approach. After all, as they say, the aim is only to get them through a few months (from about 9 or 10 months when they can sign to 18 months when they have quite a few words to communicate their needs). However, in the end, that final argument on the ‘pure’ ASL side swung it for me.

When I was in the UK I started learning British Sign Language (which incidentally is totally different from ASL). I was really enjoying it and then had to stop. Now, I get to do it all over again, learn sign language, but this time with my partner and for my kid. Sweet.

The idea of learning sign language is really appealing to me. It is not just ‘another language’, it feels like there is something special about it for me. Okay there are the basics, like K. and I will be able to sign to each other, when we don’t want to or can’t speak. More than that, though, it opens the possibility of speaking with a whole new group of people, not ‘foreign’ but somehow a completely different community. I am super psyched about this.

So, here I go, on my journey. Now it is fun and helpful to everybody: baby, daddy and me.

… And, just in case you are wondering, the most asked question is ‘won’t this slow down your child’s spoken language acquisition?’. The answer (according to leading research) is: no. In fact signers speak earlier than non-signers, on average. The motto is: ‘just like crawling makes a baby more motivated to learn to walk, signing makes a baby more motivated to talk’.

Now, at 9 months, Anya has her first signs. She signs ‘fan’ (her favourite thing, the ceiling fan) almost as soon as she wakes up, before we are even in the living room, where the fan is – such is her enthusiasm for things that spin. That is her best sign. She has also signed ‘light’ (she likes street lamps), ‘fish’ and ‘more’ (as in ‘more food please’) although all of those are still in the learning phase, I think. So much fun to see her able to ‘talk’ about things, both present and just stuff for which she wants to share her love. Bless…

The baby-haves and the baby-have-nots

Music

Image by BreckenPool via Flickr

As I bounce from music class to baby sign language group, give my child her organic baby-food and set up to spend half an hour ‘sharing focus’ with her to help improve her listening skills, attention span and communication I am struck by how soon the differences between the haves and the have nots start to surface. Some may say it starts even before that, in the womb…

I mean researchers have drawn correlations between IQ and:
– diet (particularly, but not only, Omega 3 consumption),
– exposure to certain types of music (most notably Mozart),
– learning baby-sign language,
– developing a healthy ability to focus (mostly through having a parent give one-to-one attention to the child, responding to and expanding their interests, etc),
– breastfeeding (including/especially night-feeding)
– less exposure to ‘ambient’ or background TV and distractions (which again impede the development of good listening skills
– early reading
– etc., etc.

As I bump into the same mums over and over in the different groups I attend, I can’t help but muse about just how lucky all our children are, how privileged. Conversely, I spare a thought for all the kids who don’t have all this attention lavished on them.

Hey, I know there is such a thing as too much doting, for sure. And I am also very aware that the second born child doesn’t get this level of one-to-one attention (though they usually get a slightly less neurotic, more experienced mom). But as you glance at that list above it is easy to speculate that most kids whose parents both work or who perhaps have a single parent caring for them and among those the kids whose parents have little education, know nothing and care less about healthy nutrition, books or Mozart… well, you can see the divide may start (or be perpetuated from) very early indeed.

College scholarship for underprivileged kids may be a good thing, an excellent thing, even… but it seems that the fate of so many kids is all but sealed by then. No, not just because they didn’t have baby-music classes – but because of a whole package of care that comes with having educated middle-class parents that they may have missed out on.

Then again you have to admire all the more the exceptions, the kids that came from rough neighbourhoods, whose parents gave them none of the advantages of interaction, stimulation, support and motivation that they might have got in other environments and they still make it. Some of them make it BIG. Is it their genes, their determination or something else that gives them an edge?

And I guess, there are as many (if not more) kids who were given everything and did nothing with it… ended up taking drugs and wasting away.

My point is only this, the gap is widening between the super-rich and the poor. The ‘raising tide that lifts all boats’ is failing our nations. And here I am seeing it from a new angle, from the seed up.