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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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!

Having a conversation

Yesterday I had the first conversation with my daughter. It went like this:

Me: ‘Anya, it is time to go out, now’
Anya is super excited, smiles and bounces up and down.
Mom puts on Ergo and pulls baby into carrier.
Baby: ‘Aa-Aa’ (her word for dog – ão-ão means woof woof in Portuguese)
Mom: ‘Oh, you want to go see the doggy, when we are out? Sorry, right now we are going to the car. We can go visit the doggy on our way back.’

Sweetest thing ever. She knows that we are going out and knows that out there is the dog she loves to go see and, most exciting of all, she is now able to tell me (ahead of time, note) that is what she wants to do. Man, I love her so much!

We are having more and more of these incipient dialogues. She has ‘asked me’ for food (her word for food is ‘mmm’) in the car. Today she asked for water (‘aia’ – Anya’s attempt at ‘agua’). So sweet. Add to this her signs and we are definitely away. She signs ‘more’ with great enthusiasm when she wants me to read the book again or sing a song again (she likes my voice, bless her) or to bounce her on the ball again. So cool!

She now has a vocab (yeah, I am calling it that!) of about 30 ‘words’. She has over 20 signs and nearly ten verbal words – mostly sounds like ‘blah-blah’ for phone (my personal favourite) or rrrrrrrrrr (which stands in for ‘vroom-vroom’ for tractor or car. But it is clear, verifiable and repeatable that she uses those sounds for those objects or actions, so they count :)

Here is the flip-side, though. When she started using signs that were not just descriptive (like duck) but also prescriptive, if you will, like ‘milk’ or ‘all done’ I noticed she started having more tantrums. I checked with other mums and quite a few remember experiencing the same thing: more signs = more tantrums, at the start. This is what I put it down to: I reckon she got a taste for power. With first words and the ability to say what she wanted came Anya’s first realisation that she could ask for what she wanted and with that an expectation that she would get it (’cause at the start, she often did). She was developing a sense of self, an ego or an identity are forming. She realises she is a separate being with separate wants … and with that came demands for her wants to be met. She communicates that through not so cute screaming with occasional back arching. This was mostly about expressing her will: ‘I want to go to the swings’; ‘I don’t want to get into the car seat’, that kind of thing.

I have so far mostly dealt with it by, well, ignoring it. This was the best momma advice I got on the subject. Nobody had much else to offer on the subject. I guess the main thing is to be clear that screaming does not get you what you want nor does it get you more attention.

So far… so far it seems to be a little better. Meanwhile, I got over the ‘I don’t want to get in the car thing’ by giving her a treat once she sat compliantly in the seat (yep, bribes – another piece of mommy advice gold). I just had to do that a couple of times and now she has made friends with the seat again. Phew (otherwise I’d be virtually housebound). Nobody told me the terrible twos actually start at ten months (or perhaps around 15 months when non-signing babies get first prescriptive/request-oriented words?)!

But, overall, more language means more fun, more communication and exchange and I am really enjoying finding out about what Anya gets, what she likes and what she wants and I am ready (or getting ready…) to show her where the limits, the boundaries to her new powers lie. Mommyhood, real mommyhood, here I come.

Baby Talk: How to boost your child’s language skills (a programme for 9 to 13mo babies)

Here is something I have been meaning to share for ages. A few months back, now, I read a book called Baby Talk by Dr. Sally Ward. In it she describes a programme she has developed through her clinical work as a speech therapist in the UK. She originally worked with children with delayed language acquisition (among other issues). She got a big wad of funding from the North West Regional Health Authority for some in-depth research on what worked best to improve and accelerate children’s language learning. While the programme was developed for kids with language impairments of different kinds, it turns out that it can be applied to children whose language development is ‘normal’ and in this case it significantly boosts their language and communication skills.

This book is tremendous and I really recommend it. I will say it is written in a very repetitive even, in my view, lazy way with far too much copy-and-paste going on for my liking. But if you ignore how badly it is written (ironically seeing as it is a book about language and communication) the actual programme she is sharing with us is really fantastic.

It is geared to doing three things:

  1. Increase your child’s attention span by building on their ability to concentrate and focus – this is the first step in developing a deep enjoyment of self-directed learning
  2. Improve your child’s listening skills – key to learning in a school setting
  3. Develop your child’s language and communication skills – which correlate highly with ability to use higher reasoning and therefore with IQ

I gleaned a number of insights from reading this book such as understanding that babies really can’t distinguish between foreground sounds (e.g. the sound of a rattle in their hand) and background sounds (such as a plane flying above our house or the TV playing the other side of the room). I got a better picture of what does and what does not help my child pick up language. But it is really this programme she recommends, the practicing of it, which stands to bring real results.

I got the book from the library, just found it there by accident (I tend to go to the library, head for the child development section and just see what is in this week and take whatever grabs my fancy) but I am thinking of buying the book so I have a copy for me as a reference guide. I like her age-by-age language development guide, which does for language milestones what ‘What to Expect When You Are Expecting’ does for embryo development milestones.

So, the programme… Sally (can I get personal with Dr Ward for a moment?!) proposes that we spend half an hour a day, every day, with our child, one-to-one just talking and playing. You may or may not want to do it in this structured way, but let me share the key components of the programme, as they stood out to me, as things anyone can incorporate in their interactions with their kid. You may know many of them already, but there may be one or two that are new and valuable to you.

So, the keys are that during this focussed time you spend with your child it should be:

  • one-to-one with no other people distracting or removing focus. This means making half an hour quality play time for each of your kids.
  • in a completely silent environment, with no background noise so that the child learns to really hear both the sounds you and she/he make but also the sounds her toys and other objects make. Like this they can really learn about cause and effect – eg when I hit this toy it makes that sound. Conversely a child brought up always immersed in background noise (eg TV) can have real difficulties listening and picking out important sounds – which can lead to speech and language delays. So sad…
  • child-led. They call this having ‘shared focus’ but at this age it means that you have really got to focus in on what the baby is paying attention to and give words to what she/he is seeing, doing, tasting, etc. This might be the most important step of all.
  • responsive. Make sure you answer your baby’s vocalisations. That gives her/him instant feedback, a chance to hear it played back but also an understanding of timing and of how conversations work i.e. I talk and you listen, then you talk and I listen, etc.
  • simple. In this half hour, keep your words short and your sentences simple and always grammatically correct. Create a string of short sentences which repeat and emphasise a key word you are trying to impart for example: Here is the ball. It is a blue ball. Mommy is holding the ball.
  • don’t ask ‘testing’ questions. Remembering Sally is a Speech Therapist and mostly deals with problem cases, she has often seen kids whose language skills became inhibited by over-eager parents who incessantly asked questions like ‘what is this called, little Jonny?’, ‘can you say the name for that’. This can really frustrate and puts kids off language all together – especially if they don’t immediately know the answer – plus it is pulling focus to what the parent wants them to look at rather than following the kid’s natural interest, which really is the best way to help them learn.
  • be positive. When your kid starts speaking, always celebrate or acknowledge what they do get right, even if you need to correct it slightly. Say they say ‘kiki’ for kitty. It is great they have a sound for the cat. You can respond with ‘Yes, it is the kitty’ – that immediately tells the child two things a) you like it and understand when they talk; b) the correct word is kitty. Be patient with them :)
  • have fun. If language is fun and kids are getting a kick out of being able to actually communicate and have their needs, wants and likes acknowledged and responded to they will want to communicate more. And you will enjoy it, too. This kind of approach is really about spending quality time with your little one and increasing the closeness and bond between you.

I didn’t think I would do this program when I read the book. I thought ‘I’ll read the book and get some interesting tidbits that I then apply throughout the day when we converse’. After a few chapters, though, I was convinced to give the programme (the full half hour) a go. And, to my surprise, I really liked it. So, I am not doing it, now, because it is ‘good for my daughter’ so much as because it is fun. Sharing focus with Anya I find I really have a new inlet into what she is learning, what is interesting to her now and I genuinely feel closer to her. This may or may not help her language skills. According to the book the boost is considerable and on average children who went through this programme were at least a year ahead of their peers in terms of language skills by the time they got to school and this often translates to higher IQs, too… but of course I don’t know what my daughter’s ‘starting’ IQ is so it is hard to be sure looking at just one child, whether it is working. So, no, I am doing it for me, for us, for fun, first and foremost and whatever fruits may come in the future will be a bonus (insh’Allah).

Here’s an article looking critically at Sally’s work, a few years back: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/193239.stm

Though I will say from what I read in the book this is a programme that can be started at any age before  4 years  (not just in the 9 to 13 month window described here – which I think may pertain to her earlier thinking). I reckon at any age it is bound to be useful. At the very least it helps me really notice what is interesting to my child and let that dictate the direction of our play, often.