Babies are saying it with sign language

10/24/2012 11:04 AM

08/08/2014 10:12 AM

As the grainy YouTube video opens, Laura Berg announces that her 1-year-old daughter, Fireese, will demonstrate her sign language skills. Fireese stares into the video camera and sucks contemplatively on her finger, but her focus sharpens when her mom asks, “Where’s Daddy?”

“Dada!” says Fireese, flashing a chubby-cheeked grin and raising her right hand to the side of her head with her thumb extended.

“That’s right,” Berg says, raising her right hand in a similar motion. “How about mommy? Where’s mama?”

“Mama!” Fireese chortles, spreading her fingers, with her thumb pointing toward her chin.

Berg makes a similar motion, with her hand extended farther from her face: “Excellent!”

Berg would have been happy if the 2007 video of her daughter attempting more than a dozen signs had gotten 5,000 views. But the views kept coming. At 20,000, Berg’s husband took her out to dinner. Now the video has more than 4 million views, and Berg has a signing instruction business, My Smart Hands, with almost 200 instructors worldwide, and a new book, “The Baby Signing Bible” (Avery).

“Back when I started, people were, like, is it a fad?” she says. But the more people did it, Berg adds, the more they realized the benefits of earlier communication.

Many day care centers now use baby sign language.

“I am definitely seeing an increase in interest,” says Laura Jana, author of the American Academy of Pediatrics parenting guide “Heading Home With Your Newborn.” “It’s definitely gotten into that upscale ‘What can I do to further my child’s development?’ realm, but it’s also gotten just sort of mainstream.”

Baby signing, in which babies are often taught basic vocabulary from American Sign Language, remains controversial, with detractors saying that businesses are making unproven claims regarding IQ improvement and accelerated language development. A 2005 review in the journal First Language found that reliable evidence is limited: “We cannot conclude, based on the present research, that training infants to use gestural signing for communication is beneficial, harmful or harmless,” the study says.

Berg believes there are benefits but takes the middle ground, emphasizing the potential for enhanced communication.

“I would never say to parents, ‘If you don’t sign, wow, you’re missing the boat there,’ ” she says. “It’s something you want to do or you don’t. But I would say to parents, especially the older generations who say, ‘I always knew what my baby wanted,’ well, actually, you knew what your baby didn’t want. If your baby’s throwing food on the floor, you don’t necessarily know what your baby wants, but you know what she doesn’t want. Signing adds that extra step.”

For example, one day when Fireese was 10 months old, she threw her Cheerios on the floor but signed she wanted “more.”

“Well, you don’t want more Cheerios, what do you want?” Berg asked.

Fireese signed “more cheese,” meaning she wanted cheese. There was no cheese in sight, and Fireese couldn’t say cheese, Berg says, so without the signing her daughter’s frustration would likely have increased.

“The main point is just earlier communication, making your life easier, making their life easier,” Berg says.

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