What babies want
EAGLE COUNTY – Nicola Farrer was super excited when her 11-month-old son Julian finally put his hand on his head.Farrer had scanned the room carefully before discovering a flashcard displaying a hat not far from where Julian was sitting.”It was so exciting,” said Farrer, who recognized the sign as “hat,” the first baby sign he made after two months of instruction. “I was getting a little frustrated,” waiting for him to start signing, she said, “but he was taking it all in. After he signed ‘hat,’ it was one after the other. Coffee, the moon, bubbles.”Now 15 months old, Julian knows about 100 signs.According to the Baby Signs Program, baby sign language is supposed to make babies speak earlier, increase their awareness and even raise their IQs 12 to 20 points. But the best part is less screaming and crying, Farrer said.”He still cries,” she said. “There are times he gets frustrated trying to sign something, and I’m mistaking it for something else. So I have to say, ‘Tell mommy what you want.’ And he’ll tell me.”The idea is not to learn a second language. It’s to communicate before the vocal cords develop,” she said. “It’s just the coolest.”
Still, some of the signs are so similar that babies have problems making their signs distinct, Farrer said. For example, the signs for “sorry” and “please” are rubbing your tummy with a fist and an open hand, respectively.
Some sign language philosophies hold that parents should be strict about accurate sign motions and not accept variations, but Farrer disagrees.”If you can understand what your child is telling you, I think it’s working,” Farrer said. “Some of the signs look very similar. I look at (my son) sometimes, and it could be four or five things. But you just have to look around their world.”I think the one thing you do need to be is consistent, and it’s got to be a fun relationship between the parents and the baby.”Farrer sometimes uses a stuffed bear puppet to help Julian practice and uses every opportunity to teach him new signs. “I went out and bought a book. I bring it with me, and if he’s interested in something, like say a dog at the park, I look it up real quick and show him the sign,” Farrer said.
Farrer said she tries to sign whenever Julian is present, even when she’s addressing an adult. It took her some time to feel comfortable signing with her husband, but it’s paid off, she said.Julian even signs “please” and “thank you” and is corrected when he forgets his manners.Farrer’s friend, Stefanie Russo, said she’s much less consistent with her 15-month-old, Sam, who knows about 10 signs. She said Sam signs less not only because of her inconsistency but also because he’s a high-energy baby with a low attention span.”Every baby’s different,” she said.But because babies’ motor skills are still developing, they understand more signs than they can make, said Russo, who lives in Eagle.”They might recognize the sign before they can actually do it,” she said. “Sam’s favorite food’s apples. Every time I’d sign ‘apple,’ he would clap his hands get excited about apples. He loves them.” By signing, not only can babies express themselves, but they learn to follow routines, Farrer said. She said meals are great opportunities to practice signing.”You can do ‘more’ and ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ and talk about the different foods,” Farrer said. “And now (Julian will) do ‘all done’ and then make the sign for ‘wash hands’ because he knows that’s what’s next.”
Signing may reduce parents’ frustration because babies often scream and cry to communicate. Signs often replace their tantrums, Farrer said.
“Every baby will develop some sort of nonverbal cue for you to recognize their needs,” Farrer said. “It may be crying, pointing or even waving is a cue. So if you’re already working with nonverbal cues, this just helps define what they are for you and the baby.” Babies the can use signs to tell parents they need their diapers changed may be easier to potty train, Russo said.Jamie Meirowsky plans on taking baby sign language classes that Farrer will soon teach at Synergy in Avon. Meirowsky said she wants better communication with her 15-month-old son, Kyan, and believes it will bring them closer.”He doesn’t say a whole lot of words,” Meirowsky said. “He points. And if you’ve ever had someone point at something and they don’t tell you what they’re pointing at, it could be anything. It could be the cookie on the counter or the sippy cup in the refrigerator … Sometimes we never figure out exactly what he wants.”
Growing up, Meirowsky lived across the street from a deaf and mute boy.”I learned very basic sign language,” she said. “But I wish had had more training. He was someone very close to me who was deaf, and I wished I had been able to communicate better with him.”Meirowsky wants to teach Kyan sign language in hopes that he will maintain an interest in it even after he learns to speak.”I think it would be great if some day his baby sign helped him develop American Sign Language skills so that he could communicate with deaf people in our community,” she said.”But my real goal for him learning baby sign would be to learn the words verbally in addition to the signs,” Meirowsky said. “You want to be increasing your bonding through communication with your child.”