Jun. 12, 2013 – By Samuel Learner, Wellesley Townsman
If you’re a baby, you have relatively few options for letting your caretakers know exactly what you need — and some of them, like screaming at the top of your lungs, can be pretty annoying to those around you. So what do you do?
For some babies, the solution may start with a trip to the Wellesley Free Library.
On Monday, June 10, parents took their kids to a class at the main library with the hope of teaching them not how to read, but rather how to communicate. The children, babies just several months old, were learning how to use American Sign Language (ASL) to convey non-verbally their essential needs and wants.
The teacher of this free four-week class, Sheryl White, is the owner of “Baby Kneads,” a Southborough-based baby massage and baby signing business. White has nearly 15 years of professional experience working with parents and young children and is herself a mother of three.
According to White, the main purpose of teaching sign language to babies ages 2 months to 2 years is “to reduce frustration.” As she explained, “[Babies] can communicate by gesturing before they can speak, so [teaching ASL] wards off a lot of frustration. They can sign things like I’m hungry, I’m thirsty,” signs White called “essential for early parts of babies’ lives.” In time, babies can even expand their pre-verbal vocabulary to include, on average, about 30 signs, which allows them to produce more complex messages, like “I love you.”
Reducing frustration was precisely why one Lexington mother, Brenda Netreba, took her 4-month old daughter, Lillian, to the class. Netreba heard about baby sign language while attending one of White’s infant massage classes at the Lexington Public Library. According to Netreba, “If [Lillian] can sign to me what she needs, it would just be so much more helpful.”
Another mother, Clara Hendricks of Watertown, brought her 7 ½-month-old Bridget to the class for a similar reason. Hendricks, a children’s librarian at the Wellesley Free Library, first heard about baby sign language classes seven years ago when a friend of hers attended one. “I thought [baby sign language] was interesting and that I would try it one day,” Hendricks said. She figured that if Bridget, “a very physical baby,” could learn ASL, she would “be able to communicate with us a little bit…in the pre-verbal stages of life.”
But more than just easing communication, baby sign language may be an important facilitator of verbal speech. According to White, babies “at the beginning…will just do the sign and not make the sound. The next stage is that they will make the sign and some kind of sound with it. Then once they can say [a word] clearly, they will just naturally drop the sign and say the word. By the time they can say all the words, they will have no more signs left—they won’t be signing at all.” As a testament to how sign language can help bridge the gap between non-verbal and verbal communication, White noted that “typically [a baby’s] first spoken word is their first signed word.”
Baby sign language can even give children a head start in learning how to read. As White demonstrated, “the differences [between words] in ASL are very subtle. So if I am signing this,” she said, plucking at her shirt collar with her thumb and forefinger, “this mean shirt. But if I go like this,” she said, now laying an open hand on her shirt collar “and I don’t pull on my shirt, it means white. So it just shows you how detailed the babies have to be to know the differences between the signs.” White then went on to explain why this type of attention to detail is so important later in childhood. “If [babies] are relying heavily on their eyes and what they see, perhaps when they’re looking at the letters, they might know the difference between ‘E’ versus ‘F’ because they’re used to paying attention to subtle differences.”
It is not always easy to tell when a child truly acquires a sign, but the babies in White’s group seemed to be making progress. Babies typically begin to mimic their parents’ signs at around eight months. At first, these imitations are considered “signing approximations,” or sloppier versions of the proper sign the parent performed. But in time, “with practice, and with [parents] modeling it correctly, they eventually will sign it the right way.”
An example of “signing approximation” may have occurred toward the end of the session. For example, when Hendricks’ daughter Bridget pointed to a picture of a baby she had been interested in at class, White seized on this opportunity to teach. White began pointing to a picture of a baby in a children’s book and saying with excitement “baby, baby,” while performing the ASL sign—rocking her arms as though she were holding a baby. For a few minutes, Bridget sat and watched White with laser-like focus. When White pulled a baby doll from her bag and continued to make the ASL symbol, Bridget waved her arms. “I think she may have just tried to do something,” White said, “because [Bridget] put her arms together. I don’t know if you saw that, but she did put her arms together.” After four weeks of lessons, Bridget was poised to begin communicating in sign language.
While the June 10 class was the last of that particular four-week session, White will be teaching more free classes this summer through various public libraries. More information on these classes and White’s services can be found either on the Baby Kneads Facebook page or at babykneads.com.