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Published February 11, 2013, 11:35 PM

The power to communicate: Mothers teach their babies how to use sign language

GRAND FORKS – Before she could talk, Maya Bodin had a vocabulary of eight words – words she “spoke” with her hands in sign language. When she was about 7 months old, her mother, Colleen Bodin, of Grand Forks, began to teach Maya gestures to communicate words such as “juice,” “milk” and “water.”

By: Pamela Knudson, Forum News Service, INFORUM

GRAND FORKS – Before she could talk, Maya Bodin had a vocabulary of eight words – words she “spoke” with her hands in sign language.

When she was about 7 months old, her mother, Colleen Bodin, of Grand Forks, began to teach Maya gestures to communicate words such as “juice,” “milk” and “water.”

“I thought it was something she could learn, something I could do with her that wasn’t playing with toys,” Colleen said. “She’s always been a very interested toddler.”

Some of her friends and family members had taught sign language to their children, so she decided to try it with Maya “as kind of an experiment – to see how long it would take her to pick it up.”

When Maya was able to sit in a high chair and feed herself, Colleen began by speaking a word and signing it at the same time.

“I started with ‘more,’” she said. It was a good alternative to crying and screaming.

After about two months, “one day she just did it.”

From then on, mother and daughter were on a roll. Maya learned more signs, and she never forgot any she had learned, even for short periods of time, Colleen said.

“We started with things she was familiar with, things that she would want or not want.”

The sign for “more” is simple: holding the hands horizontally in front of the body and tapping fingertips together. Maya’s version is similar, but her fists are closed. She has modified some other gestures, too.

But that’s OK, Mom gets it. So does Dad, Steve Bodin, who also signs with his daughter.

“When Maya first signed the word ‘more,’ she got so excited,” Colleen said. “It’s like when she first put the circle block in the circle hole, you go, ‘yay!’ ”

Reactions like that reinforce learning.

“When you work hard to teach them something and now they do it, they’re proud, you’re proud,” Colleen said.

Teaching sign language to Maya was fun, she said.

“It’s something you can teach them at a young age, and they know you understand them.”

It “reduces those outbursts of ‘anh, anh, anh,’ when there are six things in front of you and you have no idea which thing they want.’

“It cuts down on the stress and brings calmness to them when they can get what they’re demanding,” Colleen said.

Sign language “opens a whole new chapter of what they know,” she said. The results were “fascinating.”

“It’s shocking to see how you can teach a baby, a baby, something like that.”

REVEALING INTELLIGENCE

The process also gave Colleen insight into just how smart her daughter is, she said, as well as her ability to generalize concepts.

Maya knew the sign for water, to drink, but would also make the sign whenever she saw water – bath water, toilet water, sink water, water bottle, drinking fountain, fish tank, dog dish – even though her mother hadn’t taught it for those things.

“I had no idea she understood that ‘water’ meant more than just ‘to drink,’ ” she said. “She was telling me without verbalizing ‘water.’ It’s so amazing to me.”

Maya also associates words with other like objects. She signs the word for “noodle” when she sees a variety of pastas, Bodin said.

When she taught Maya not to touch the stove because it’s hot, the baby started noticing other sources of heat, pointing to the fireplace, a space heater and a steaming cup of coffee and saying, “hot.”

“When they have a way to tell you what it is, they’re confident enough to tell you. You can see how smart they really are.

“It’s just really neat.”

CALMING EFFECT

According to BabySignLanguage.com, the technique is a means of communicating with an infant as young as 6 months old.

“Using hand gestures, a baby can communicate, often more than a year before they can speak,” the site states. It also quotes a study by university professors in California that found a group of second-graders who could sign as infants later performed better academically than members of a control group.

The practice also helps speech development, said Emily Erwin, of Grand Forks, a speech pathologist who taught sign language to her daughter, Anna, as an infant.

“We used it a lot,” she said. “We were modeling it at 9 months, and she was using it at 11 months.”

“More” is a good word to start with because “it can be used with lots of activities – more food, more toys, more books, more jumping,” Emily said.

“You can use it all day.”

Anna learned more than 20 signs by age 16 months.

Teaching sign language to babies is becoming more common, Emily said. “Most of my friends have done it with their kids. …. People seem to love it. Having a 1-year-old who can semi-communicate is really nice.”

The advantages are obvious, especially its calming effect, she said.

“Anything you can do as a parent with your child to ease their frustration is good. It doesn’t matter if it’s done exactly right, just so the parent understands,” she said.

She also taught her parents and day care provider to sign, so they could better communicate with Anna, now 28 months old.

Emily said she plans to teach sign language to her son, Makai, who is 6 months old.

In her work as a speech pathologist at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, Emily and her colleagues “use a lot of sign language with pediatric patients,” she said, “because the motor skills involved in speech are more fine, while the motor skills used for sign language are gross or larger.”

“For words like ‘more,’ ‘please’ and ‘milk,’ you don’t have to do a lot with your hands,” she said. “When a child is not talking yet, (sign language) kind of facilitates speech.”

This tool to connect with others early in life helps children understand they have the power to communicate.

“The child realizes, ‘Oh, this sign means something; it has power and I can get what I want,’” she said. “It’s a huge advantage in speech development.

“They learn that words are powerful.”

REACTIONS

On shopping trips, when she and Anna are checking out, Anna will sometimes sign “thank you” to the clerk, Emily said. “People will say, ‘Did she just sign “thank you”? That’s so nice; I did sign language with my children.’ ”

Not everyone appreciates the alternative language for babies though.

“Some people think it’s strange,” Colleen said. When they see Maya sign, “some say, ‘What is she doing?’ They don’t understand.”

But overall people react positively, she said.

At 18 months old, Maya still uses a sign gesture along with speaking certain words.

“It must be, in her mind, this is how you say it,” she said with a chuckle.

Since Maya has begun to speak more words, Colleen has “kind of slowed down” on signing, she said. “She can tell me now.”

But she will have another chance to work on sign language. She intends to teach it to her second child, due to be born in May.

To anyone who’s interested in this approach to child development, her advice is, “don’t get discouraged.

“It’s not something they’ll be able to do the next day, next week or even next month. It’s like anything else with babies, it takes consistency.

“Be persistent. One day, they’ll just do it. Then, you can add other words.’

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