03/06/05 — Before they're ready to talk, children may say much through use of sign language

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Before they're ready to talk, children may say much through use of sign language

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 6, 2005 2:03 AM

Most parents are ready to respond to their newborn's every need. The thing that usually holds them back is understanding what those needs are. Without knowing how to talk, an infant has a limited ability to communicate.

But a local chiropractic physician says that by the time a baby is 6 months old and starts waving "bye-bye," he or she can also probably begin to convey "eat" and whether it wants "more."

Dr. Kara Paat of Chiropractic Advantage said the concept of "baby sign language" is becoming more prominent as parents look for ways to improve the transition to verbal communication. Sign language, she says, works better than "baby talk."

"Parents want to comply but they don't know what the child wants," said Paat, who expanded her practice a year ago to include pediatrics.

"I just expose people to a lot of ideas and wait for them to come," she said.

Paat says she often speaks with parents about the concept of signing and periodically offers a free class on the subject. She says her role is not to teach children how to sign, but to equip and ready the parents to do it.

Children give clues when they are ready for the teachable moments, "when they're looking at things and looking for your response to that," she said. "They have the comprehension to tell you, but they can't tell you.

"They want to communicate it, but they can't articulate it."

Paat said it is not good to push children to try to understand signs until they are ready, as it will cause frustration for both child and parent. When the time is right, though, signing works well as a primary source of communication before the children can talk.

"Children can actually sign that they want more to drink, need a change," or express other needs that previously might have been ignored or misunderstood, Paat said. As a result, she said, children using the techniques are much more at peace.

"Babies seem more relaxed because they don't have to scream to get what they want," she said.

Sonya Stone of Asheville, a former patient of Dr. Paat, says she would recommend baby sign language and plans to use it on her newborn. She still remembers the day older daughter Savannah, now 21/2 years old, did her first complete sign. She was about 13 months old.

"She did the sign for 'more' and I asked if she wanted more to eat or drink and she signed, 'want more food," Mrs. Stone said. "I thought, 'Hey, she gets it!'"

She said she started using signs more fully when Savannah demonstrated a greater understanding of what her parents were saying. Mrs. Stone said she used a video and book and started with basics of "milk," "more" and "eat."

Within two days, Savannah was repeating the signs. Mrs. Stone said she believes signing helps with motor development as the child mimics adult hand motions.

"They say in the video, the earlier you start, the better," she said. "It helps with comprehension."

Because of that, she said she plans to start signing earlier with her next child.

"It was fabulous for us," Mrs. Stone said. "It will be a good way for her sister to communicate with the baby, too."

Sign language is also effective for youngsters whose speech skills are developmentally delayed, said Dr. Paat.

Sandra Chapel of Goldsboro has three children, ages 10, 6 and nearly 5 months old. She says her middle child was born with a lot of fluid in his ears and had infections that affected his speech.

Joshua was nearly a year old, she said, and would become upset because he couldn't communicate with his parents.

"He'd make noise but we couldn't understand him because he couldn't hear what we were saying," she said.

Her background working with mentally and physically handicapped adults, some of whom were deaf, came in handy. Out of necessity, she relied on sign language.

"For Josh, it just made it easier for him to communicate with us," she said. "We put our finger to our mouth for 'mouth' or 'eat.'" It gradually expanded to include concepts of drink, sleep, potty and outside.

Mrs. Chapel said her son was very bright, but the speech problem and being unable to pronounce words proved frustrating. She now home-schools him and continues to work with him on speech development. She says that being able to use sign language has helped on many levels.

"He threw less tantrums because we understood what he was saying," she said. "I think he felt closer and connected and more in control of things. He could ask for things and we could understand him."

Paat said the only fear she has come up against is becoming too reliant on signing, but she said she has found that there is a natural progression when the child is ready. Some parents even make up their own signs, she said.

She also negates concern that using sign language will slow down the speech development process.

"They can actually put together sentences quicker," Paat said.

The National Institutes of Health has researched and supported the idea, she says, and it has been recommended by American Sign Language, the official language for the deaf community.

Her next introductory class for parents is planned for March 22 at 6:30 p.m., at the Chiropractic Advantage office on North Spence Avenue.

Deana Britt of Grantham says she plans to be there.

Ms. Britt says she has not tried to use sign language with either of her children, Jake, 5, or Cole, 6 months. But she has been doing the research and thinks it will be helpful.

"I think it's worth a try," she said. "Children tend to be less frustrated if they're able to communicate. I think it will be great to alleviate frustration for him and for us."

For more information about the class, call 759-9177.