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Babies signing their first words

One day Christy Anderson was spooning mashed fruit into her baby’s mouth. "Do you want more?" she asked her son, Russell, then 10 months old.

Russell brought the fingers of his hands together – the baby sign language symbol for "more."

It was a moment Anderson said she would never forget.

"It brings tears to your eyes," she said. "They’re talking to you, before they ever say 'mama,' " she said.

The Boca Raton mom of 12-month-old twin boys uses baby sign language to communicate with her hearing children. Parents in on the trend say it allows babies to express themselves while giving caregivers a clear indication of what’s on the youngster’s mind. The result, they say, is a calmer baby and clued-in parent.

Taught under a variety of brands, including Baby Signs, My Smart Hands and Signing Time, baby signing DVDs, CDs and workshops also promise accelerated language development, increased vocabulary and higher IQs, but does the practice live up to the hype?

"It’s a reasonable thing to do, but certainly not necessary," said Jeffrey Brosco, professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami. "Kids who are going to do well are going to do well anyway. For a typically developing child, sign language lessons are not going to make them do any better."

When Tina Voci was pregnant with her son Mario, now 4, she started researching baby sign language as a means to gauge her baby’s needs. Voci, of Deerfield Beach, now teaches Baby Signs classes.

"Research shows that babies cry because they need to communicate and can’t talk," Voci said. "The great thing about Baby Signs is that they don’t have to cry - they can let the parent know what’s on their mind."

The program teaches signs for everyday items in the baby’s environment, such as favorite blanket or pacifier, milk or a nap.

"So when a baby cries, parents don’t have to go down the list – Are they hungry? Are they thirsty? It takes the guesswork out of it," Voci said.

Voci said she offers a two-hour parent workshop for $55 that teaches parents tools to help their own children. The session includes a kit with a library of common signs. Though some babies have started as young as 4 months, the typical starting age is about 6 months, continuing on to 18 months.

"I teach parents ways to recognize if the baby is engaged, and how to know if the baby is getting it, so they can move on to other signs," Voci said. "There is really no set way, because it depends on the baby’s stage of development and the family."

Baby Signs uses 80 percent American Sign Language and 20 percent modified baby signs. Most of the baby signs are instinctual, Voci said. "Generally, baby will watch the parent sign and mimic it," she said.

Robert Fifer, director of Audiology and Speech Language Pathology at the University of Miami Mailman Center for Child Development, says baby signing can have its advantages, but parents should be careful not to overdo it.

Fifer says much of what is known about early baby signing was learned from observing the hearing kids of deaf parents. As the parents used American Sign Language, the kids were picking it up and doing gross signs, well before they could say words, he said.

"What baby signing does do is that it allows babies to express specific needs way before their ability to speak," Fifer said.

Anderson started baby signing when the twins were 9 months old. She began with five words: milk, more, water, bubbles and bath. A month later, Russell made the sign for "more" during dinner.

Now, she said, Russell and brother, Chase, "talk" to each other. One will sign "ball" if the other is holding one. Or one will sign "flower" and the other will point.

"Sometimes they will giggle, like they’ve made that connection," Anderson said.

The boys will sign "light" in malls and buildings, opening their mom’s eyes to lovely skylights and light fixtures, she said.

"I’ll look up and there’s really beautiful skylights in the mall. I had no idea," she said.

Voci says the signs also can be useful into the toddler years, even after a child begins to speak.

She cites the example of when then 3-year-old Mario came home one evening and saw a neighbor’s cat outside. He said "cat" to Voci, who explained that it was too late to play with the cat. But Mario kept saying "cat," until Voci, frustrated, signed "What?" Mario signed back "Carrot."

"This could have gone on all night, but he was able to let me know he wanted a carrot," she said.

Fifer said a side benefit of baby signing is that it encourages parents to interact with their child. Encouraging this parent-child interaction can foster critical brain development in children, he said. There is a window, from birth to 36 months, when high-quality stimulation will help the child develop cognitively.

He cautions that if parents get carried away with signing without vocalizing, it can lead to a delay in speech. Starting around 12 months, and continuing to 18 months, parents should begin transitioning to speech so that signing becomes secondary.

"I have seen families who relied too much on sign with kids delayed in speech, but they can be caught up with therapy," he said.

As to claims of early language development, Fifer said overall, he hasn’t seen a long-term difference in babies who signed and those who didn’t.

And does baby signing really lead to a higher IQ? "That’s probably not so much from the sign language as the parent-child interaction," Fifer said. "That interaction is very beneficial to brain development. It really can make a difference later on."

Any quality interaction, he said, such as reading to your child, can have the same effect.

"Any sort of way a child communicates, besides crying, is good, but explicitly teaching sign language is not necessary for most babies," Brosco said. "Parents who are concerned about their kids doing well -- their kids are going to do well. What they should do now is relax and enjoy their kids and stop putting pressure on them."