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Giving babies a way to ‘talk’ before they can

  • Sign language instructor Sheryl White of Boston, left, signs "cow" to 4-month-old William Dupuis Moreno of Easthampton during a workshop she held at the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton. With William are his mother, Maria Moreno, and sister, Olivia, 4. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Baby sign language instructor Sheryl White, left, signs "cow" to four-month-old William Dupuis Moreno of Easthampton July 7, 2017 during a workshop to teach babies how to communicate with sign language before they can speak at Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton. His mother Maria Moreno and sisters Isabel, 6, and Olivia, 4, look on. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Maria Moreno, left, holds her four-month-old son William Dupuis Moreno while his sister Olivia Dupuis Moreno, 4, wears silly glasses and uses sign language to say "glasses" July 7, 2017 during a workshop to teach babies how to communicate with sign language before they can speak at Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • White shows William a bubble as well as the sign for it as Olivia mimics the sign. White offers workshops on signing with babies at libraries and schools throughout the state. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Logan Katz of Belchertown rubs his chest in a circular motion to sign "please" to Malka Coburn at the Smith College Center for Early Childhood Education at Fort Hill in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Coburn makes the sign for "water" for Esme Brown, right, while Logan Katz watches. Children at the Smith day care center are exposed to signs as early as 8 weeks old. In the background is Judy McWilliams. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Malka Coburn use sign language to ask Esme Brown (off camera, to left) if she wants "more" during snack time at the Smith College Fort Hill Center for Early Childhood Education in Northampton on Monday, July 17, 2017. She is flanked by Logan Katz, left, and Mael Cheneba. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Malka Coburn makes the sign for "play" that she uses with the seven-to-20-month-old children in her care at the Smith College Fort Hill Center for Early Childhood Education in Northampton on Monday, July 17, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Malka Coburn demonstrates a sign she uses during snack time with the seven-to-20-month-old children in her care at the Smith College Fort Hill Center for Early Childhood Education in Northampton on Monday, July 17, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dina Levi hugs her daughter Ezra Robbins Levi, 2, Wednesday, July 12, at her home in Northampton.

  • Dina Levi watches her daughter Ezra Robbins Levi, 2, as she has a snack Wednesday, July 12, at her home in Northampton.

  • Dina Levi plays with her daughter Ezra Robbins Levi, 2, Wednesday, July 12, at her home in Northampton.

  • Levi asks Ezra if she remembers the sign for “please.” JERRY ROBERTS

  • Dina Levi of Northampton says her daughter, Ezra Robbins Levi, is a talkative 2½-year old who started out learning signs when she was an infant. JERRY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Logan Katz, 18 months old, knows how to get what he wants as he finishes his bowl of applesauce and rubs his chest with one open palm. His gesture is intentional, and firm. It means “please” in sign language and lets his teacher, Malka Coburn, at The Smith College Center for Early Childhood Education in Northampton, know he wants more.

When she delivers, he digs in, scooping the food into his mouth with his pointer finger before picking up a spoon nearby.

Logan is sitting at a table with half a dozen other babies during snack time at the day care center and the three teachers in this classroom are using American Sign Language to communicate with the children. Some understand the signs but don’t produce them. Others use dozens of them before any verbal language develops, says Coburn.

“Logan, do you want more water?” Coburn holds up three fingers and makes a motion with her hand like she is drinking.

He ignores her this time; his full attention is still on the applesauce.

Another baby, sitting in a highchair across the table, holds her hand up in the air and moves it up and down like she is milking a cow. “Are you thinking about milk?” Coburn asks. “We can get you some milk.”

Early expression

None of these children, all under 20 months old, has a hearing problem, but sign language is routine here where babies are exposed to signs at as early as 8 weeks old. It is a method used by many educators and parents to give babies a tool to express what they want before they learn to speak, Coburn says.

“It definitely reduces some frustration,” for them.

When the babies need a diaper change, some Smith teachers will sign “change.” If it is playtime, they might sign “play,” but most often the gestures have to do with food, like “more” and “milk.”

“It helps them clue into what is coming,” Coburn said.

Not long after Logan’s parents Matt and Kelly Katz of Belchertown enrolled him in Smith’s program at 10 months old, he began using the sign for please at home when he wanted more of his favorite food: blueberries.

“I still remember when he first started doing it,” Matt Katz said. “That was a really special moment for us. It wasn’t quite like his first step, but it was definitely one of those milestones, like ‘holy crap, this little boy can actually communicate something to me.’ ”

His sign language vocabulary kept growing. At night when he was tired, he would let his mother know he was ready for bed by signing for milk.

When the family went on a plane trip, he signed “thank you” to the flight attendants, a gesture which looks like he is blowing a kiss.

Now Logan can speak about 30 words, says Katz.

He and his wife have no way of telling whether signing hastened his language development, they say, but they’re glad he learned it. “Most people tend to think it is pretty sweet and cute,” Katz says.

Bridging a gap

Some educators, though, think that there are practical reasons for parents to sign with their babies.

Developmental specialists and speech pathologists at the area state-funded REACH program regularly use sign language to help children achieve early communication milestones, according to Michael Hutton-Woodland, director of the REACH Early Intervention program. The program works with infants and toddlers, birth through age 3, who have developmental delays or medical complications from birth.

“Baby sign language is a way to bring the power of expression to kids,” said Sally Rice, a REACH speech and language pathologist.

Speech delays are some of the most common developmental delays and the struggles that come with them can be eased by learning a few simple signs, she says.

The precise, quick movements of articulating speech are pretty challenging, she points out, and the motor skills required for sign language are less complex.

“I am creating another avenue for expression until the child’s motor system can handle talking,” she said. “I am helping to give parents the power of communication that makes sense for the family.”

Babies can understand concepts long before they have the ability to express them verbally, she says, so sign language can bridge the gap. 

Proud moments

Sheryl White of Boston, who travels throughout New England teaching sign language to babies and parents, believes that not only does it help babies speak sooner, it promotes literacy. “They have an easier time with reading and writing later on,” she said.

White, who has a degree in psychology and is self-trained in sign language, was at the Emily Williston Memorial Library in Easthampton recently conducting a workshop. She regularly visits libraries and schools throughout the state and gives private consultations with parents through her business Baby Kneads.

White says she started signing with her own babies in the 1990s. Most people hadn’t heard of the practice then, she says, and thought she was odd.

She was motivated to learn signing when her youngest child, Rachel, a colicky baby, was 3 weeks old. Rachel cried incessantly, White says, and she was willing to try anything to communicate with her infant.

Since then, White has seen the popularity of baby sign language take off. The Forbes Library in Northampton has at least 15 books on the topic as well as a number of DVDs. And day care programs, like Smith’s, that teach signing are common.

One parent who attended White’s Easthampton workshop, Maria Moreno, sat on the floor with her 4-month-old, William, the baby’s eyes fixed on White who was blowing bubbles.

As she blew them, she made the sign for the word bubble — a circle with her thumb and pointer finger. 

She leaned in close to William’s face, saying the word as she signed it. 

The bubbles floated into the air before popping on William’s cheeks. He squirmed and grinned.

“Do you want ‘more ’” White asked as she held her fingers together in front of his face. 

Sometimes, she says, she helps babies along by moving their hands into the right positions. They will often start to understand the signs weeks before they can replicate them.

It’s good for their self-esteem,” she said. “The first time they show you a sign, they can be very proud.”

Frustration avoided

A Northampton couple, Dina Levi and Allie Robbin, used signs like “more” and “milk” routinely soon after their daughter Ezra Robbins Levi was born. They also introduced “help,” which Ezra used when she had trouble opening up her baby gate.

“It was just nice to feel like she was at least a little empowered,” Levi said.

The family had seen friends use sign language with their babies when they lived in the Bay Area in California and were convinced that it worked.

Erza began speaking at around 1, her parents’ say, and these days is a talkative 2½- year-old.

Though Ezra no longer uses any of the signs, her parents say they are glad she had them when she needed them.

“It helped us avoid, I think, a lot of the frustrations,” Levi said.

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.