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Five-year-old Elisabeth Lambert shows 4-month-old Andrea Reith of Huntsville a Baby Signs book during an informational Baby Signs meeting at the Athens Recreation Center.
Daily photos by Jonathan Palmer
Five-year-old Elisabeth Lambert shows 4-month-old Andrea Reith of Huntsville a Baby Signs book during an informational Baby Signs meeting at the Athens Recreation Center.

Baby Talk
Local parents teaching infants to communicate through sign language

By Danielle Komis Palmer
dpalmer@decaturdaily.com · 340-2447

“What is a doggy? Show me what a doggy is!” Glenna Lambert of Athens prods her daughter, Kristen.

Kristen quickly pats the sides of her legs, the sign for dog.

“Excellent!” Lambert says, as other parents at a recent Baby Signs informational class at the Athens Recreation Center mimic the movement with their babies.

Kristy Reith of Huntsville tries in vain to get her baby to learn the dog sign, but 4-month-old Andrea seems content with drooling.

Glenna Lambert shows the sign for “bunny” to parents and babies at an informational Baby Signs meeting at the Athens Recreation Center.
Glenna Lambert shows the sign for “bunny” to parents and babies at an informational Baby Signs meeting at the Athens Recreation Center.
Though they’re using sign language, Reith, nor anyone else in the class is deaf.

Local parents like Lambert and Reith are part of a growing national trend of parents and caretakers who teach hearing babies simple gestures, or signs, to communicate before they can talk. Common helpful signs include “milk” “juice” “hungry” and “more.”

The concept goes that because babies’ motor skills develop earlier than their verbal skills, they can communicate by signing before they can talk. Some local parents say signing is their secret weapon against typical tantrums because babies who can communicate their needs are not as frustrated and don’t tend to scream and cry.

Reduced frustration

Lambert says she witnessed this with her daughters, Kristen, 6, and Elisabeth, 5, who were less than a year old when they began to learn the signs.

Lambert’s mother, Laura West, who cared for the girls while Lambert taught school during the day, taught them the signs.

“I was sold on it after I started with my granddaughter (Kristen),” West said. West was so impressed that she became a certified Baby Signs instructor 11/2 years ago.

After she taught Kristen basic signs “there was a whole lot less frustration,” she said. “She could express her needs, wants and why she was crying. I just fell in love with it then.”

West said she typically recommends the program for babies 8 months to 21/2 years.

And just like a child’s first words, proud parents remember some of their child’s first signs.

“It was summer, and we all had been really busy,” Lambert said. “It was around 7 p.m. and Kristen made the ‘hungry’ sign. That was the first time she’d really used the sign language to tell me about it.”

Mother Emily Ghadimi and grandmother Mary Jo Ghadimi try to teach 17-month-old Noah Ghadimi the sign for “play.”
Mother Emily Ghadimi and grandmother Mary Jo Ghadimi try to teach 17-month-old Noah Ghadimi the sign for “play.”
West is a certified instructor for Baby Signs, a national company that produces curriculum, conducts classes and makes products like books, DVDs toys and stuffed animals related to baby signing.

The program originated from research started in 1982 by psychology professors Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn. The two released a book in 1996 called “Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk” that became a best seller.

The duo’s extensive research is often cited by enthusiastic signing parents. Acredolo and Goodwyn found that babies who signed had better language skills than non-signing babies their same age, and at age 8, children in the Baby Signs program scored 12 points higher on average on IQ tests than their non-signing peers.

Typical concerns

While some parents worry that teaching their baby sign language may delay their child’s verbal skills, the duo’s research shows the opposite.

West often addresses this concern with parents, and likens signing and talking to crawling and walking.

“Just because they crawl doesn’t mean they don’t want to walk,” she said.

Other parents worry that they won’t have the time to teach the signs, which Lambert said was her initial concern when they started signing. However, once she learned more about it, she realized how simple it was.

“It’s an easy thing to incorporate into your normal stuff,” she said. “You don’t have to take out special time for it. ... The hardest part is to stop and be open-minded to it. I was just so busy. To take the five minutes to listen to the research and give it a fair shake — that was it.”

Do-it-yourself signing

While the Baby Signs system is a leading sign language system, other parents teach their children to visually communicate without a specific curriculum like Baby Signs.

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Daily photo by John Godbey
Chantelle Rogers, middle, asks daughter Madeline, right, “please” vocally and with the sign for please — a flat right hand making a circular motion clockwise on the chest. Daughter Macey, left, also knows some basic sign language.
Some parents use American Sign Language books, signs they already know, or their own hand gestures they create with their child.

There seems to be no right or wrong way to do it, as long as it helps you communicate with your infant or toddler, parents say.

Chantelle Rogers of Moulton, who uses signs with her two daughters, was turned on to the idea when she witnessed her young relatives learn sign language from a deaf cousin. She said she hadn’t realized babies could learn sign language until then.

“It was something I thought was very interesting,” she said.

She taught gestures to her 2-year-old daughter, Madeline, at 9 months, and is also teaching them to her younger daughter, Macey.

While Madeline’s verbal vocabulary has taken over as her dominant language, she will still use her signs if she is feeling shy or cranky, Rogers said.

Making life easier

As infants, neither of her girls threw many tantrums.

“Honestly, they didn’t cry much because they weren’t upset,” Rogers said of her daughters when they were younger. “They just did the sign for milk and I got them milk. It definitely made life easier.”

Along with making Rogers’ life easier, her signing infants also made other people’s days brighter. Many marveled at a baby who can “talk.”

“It was an oddity,” she said, laughing. “People knew that they could come talk to this baby and she could talk to them.”

Signing also had another side effect. Communicating with her children at such an early age changed the way Rogers viewed child development.

Rogers has already taught Madeline her colors and the alphabet because even though she is young, Rogers realizes she is capable of it, she said.

“When you realize your child can communicate with you, it opens your eyes to how much your child can do,” she said.

Basic signs

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Daily photos by John Godbey
Love you
Two-year-old Madeline Rogers often creates her own versions of the American Sign Language signs her mother, Chantelle, taught her. Chantelle said Madeline uses them consistently so she knows what her daughter is trying to communicate.

Want to sign with your baby?

A Baby Signs parent workshop will be Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. at Athens Recreation Center on U.S. 31. The workshop costs $50, which includes a parent kit. To register, contact Laura West at 230-8393.

Classes

What: Baby Signs classes

When: Saturdays, starting Oct. 6 until Nov. 10. From 11:15 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Where: Athens Recreation Center on U.S. 31, north of Athens High School

Cost is $125, which includes tuition and “Sign, Say & Play” starter kit.

To register, contact West at 230-8393.

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