March 28, 2001 -- Maya Hatenbeck, a 17-month-old girl from Seattle, can tell her parents what she needs, even though she can’t say the words.
Maya is one of tens of thousands of babies across the United States now using sign language to communicate, even though she is not hearing impaired. Some hospitals and day-care centers are now even offering classes on baby sign language as part of their programs.
“All of a sudden she got it,” said John Hatenbeck, her father. “Milk was the first sign she did. … Then she pretty quickly got some more.”
Sign With Your Baby
The move toward teaching children to sign began in the late 1980s, on the heels of graduate school research in 1987 by Joseph Garcia, who lives in Bellingham, Wash.
Today, Garcia is the author of Sign With Your Baby, (1999 Northlight Communications) a program promoting the use of American Sign Language (ASL) in infants. ASL is the standard sign language in North America.
Garcia recommends parents begin signing with their babies by their eighth month, with some children picking it up quickly and others taking longer.
“Rather than just crying and going ‘uh uh’ and reaching for something, now the baby can sign they want milk, they want juice, they want more of something,” Garcia says.
Can Say When it Hurts
Through simple signs, babies also can tell parents they are in pain.
“We taught her the sign for medicine,” says Kim Botrin, a Seattle mother. “Now she comes to us without hesitation to tell us she is in pain and needs medicine.”
ASL is not the only signing language employed.
University of California-Davis psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn started promoting signing back in 1996 with their book Baby Signs using invented signs. (NTC/Contemporary Publishing.)
The three researchers say that babies who use sign language get less frustrated, have higher IQs and tend to speak sooner.
“And when they do, they have more to say,” says Garcia. “Because they are learning language. It may be gestural but it’s the structure of language.”
Linguists Cast Doubt
Some linguists, however, challenge these claims, saying it remains unclear if the babies really are using the signs or if parents are acknowledging what would be their children’s normal nonverbal cues.
But Maya, during ABCNEWS’ one-hour visit seemed to be using her sign language to talk to her dad.
“Want your milk?” her father asked. Maya signed she wanted to come down from her high chair.
“What do you want Maya?” her father asked. Maya made the sign for a swing.
April Zepeda of ABC TV affiliate KOMO in Seattle, Wash., and ABCNEWS.com's Robin Eisner contributed to this report.