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Consumer Reports

Giving parents a hand: Sign language helps babies communicate | (KRT) At 15 months old, Daniel Pankowski is a little man of few words. But he knows how to let his mom know when he is craving a cookie or wants to watch a "Blue's Clues" video - without resorting to screaming and crying.

Using his tiny hands to express what his vocal cords won't yet allow him to verbalize, Daniel has a repertoire of about 35 words in sign language, ranging from ice cream to motorcycle, which he signs every time he hears one roaring down the street.

"It's just so cool. It's like a window into his mind," said Daniel's mother, Jennifer Pankowski, 32, of Milwaukee.

The former first-grade teacher has used sign language with her two boys since 2-½-year-old Justin was only 4 months old, when Pankowski heard about a baby sign language class at a playgroup. By 7 months, Justin was signing for milk whenever he was hungry.

And that made for a happier baby and a less-frustrated mother.

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"Often they know what they want and they have no way of telling you except crying," Pankowski said. "It's like you're giving them this gift, showing them how to express it."

Sign language classes for babies and their parents are popping up all around the country after research showing that children who learn to communicate earlier through sign language often out-perform non-signing peers in verbal development tests, resulting in larger vocabularies and higher IQs.

Even some preschools and day care centers are getting in on the burgeoning trend, teaching signs to infants such as stop, gentle and share to cut down on crying fits and negative physical interaction between the children, such as biting and pinching.

Pankowski, who parlayed her personal experiences with babies and sign language into workshops she teaches to other parents, just completed a $75 three-week course with a group of parents and their babies through the recreation departments of Muskego and New Berlin, Wis. She'll be teaching another workshop next month through Covenant Health Care.


"It's getting more popular," Pankowski said. "Actually, it's kind of exploding."

In her workshops, Pankowski uses a program based on American Sign Language, developed by Joseph Garcia, a child development researcher. Working as an interpreter for the deaf in the late 1970s, Garcia noticed that hearing babies of deaf parents could communicate needs and desires at an earlier age than the children of hearing parents, according to Garcia's Web site,

For University of California-Davis psychology professor Linda Acredolo, research in the field began on a personal note in 1982. When her daughter, Kate, was about 1, the baby pointed at a rosebush in the garden. Then she turned to her mother and made sniffing noises, over and over.

"Later that day, she was using that same sniffing gesture for flowers on the wallpaper, flowers on her clothes. It wasn't hard to figure out what she was talking about," Acredolo said. "I wrote in my journal, `Kate did the cutest thing today.' And that was the beginning."

"I started to watch her, and it became clear to me that she was doing something interesting," Acredolo added.

Working with one of her graduate students with a master's degree in language development, Susan Goodwyn, the two began researching how babies use gestures as part of normal speech development.


Then they embarked on studies comparing speech development in babies who signed with their parents with those who did not sign. By age 3, the children who were exposed to sign language performed better on a series of verbal development tests than non-signers.

When the children in the study were 8, Acredolo and Goodwyn did a follow-up study. It showed that the signers continued to have higher IQs than the non-signing children.

Acredolo and Goodwyn have published two editions of their "Baby Signs" books since 1996 and have sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States alone. The books have been published in 17 different languages, including Spanish and even Croatian. On the Web site, parents interested in signing with their babies can even spend $49.95 to buy BeeBo, a 29-inch teddy bear puppet designed to hold babies' attention while teaching signs.

"I think parents are finding out that (signing) is a wonderful way for babies to communicate in that difficult time" before speech develops, Acredolo said. "And it doesn't hurt language development. It's actually quite the opposite."

But Acredolo stresses that signing with your baby should not be done simply so ambitious parents can put their babies on a fast track.

"The reason to do `Baby Signs' is not to raise IQ," she said. "The main reason to do it is for the social and emotional benefits - for the sense of connection between parent and child."

Steven Long, assistant professor in Marquette University's Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, said the university has not taken any official stance on using sign language to help hearing babies develop speech. However, Long said he puts the practice in the same league as introducing mathematical concepts or music to children at an early age.

"The same group (of parents) who want to play Mozart to their child in the crib would probably want to do this," Long said. "There's absolutely no evidence of harm coming from introducing children to sign language at an early age."

Judging by baby sign language's effectiveness with each of her five children, pediatric speech pathologist Linda Anton is an enthusiastic advocate of it. She teaches $50, five-week signing classes to parents and their babies at HealthReach Rehabilitation Services Inc. in Brookfield, Wis.


"I think the average parent doesn't realize that before children can talk, you can really communicate and interact and get good information about what hurts them and what scares them and what they need," Anton said.

Babies learn the signs through repetitions, with parents simultaneously speaking and signing words in daily interactions such as reading and singing songs.

"The more you make it part of your daily life, the easier it is for (babies) to pick it up," Pankowski said.

She can rattle off a long list of times when signing with her sons came in handy, with signs such as more, video, wait and play making life a little easier for everybody at the Pankowski home.

When older son Justin was teething and woke up crying one night, Pankowski walked into his bedroom to find Justin giving the sign for medicine - holding out his flat palm and circling it with a finger on his other hand.

"I'd give him Tylenol and he'd literally just fall back into his bed," Pankowski said. "Neither one of us was up for very long. I didn't need to be - he told me exactly what he wanted."

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© 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services