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Ask Dr. Mom: Show Me A Sign

Q. I have heard that babies can learn simple sign language to help them communicate with their parents before they can talk. I'd like to try this with my 6-month-old son, but my mom's skeptical  -- she thinks it's an awfully big project to take on. What is your opinion?

A. "Signing" actually comes naturally to preverbal babies, most of whom automatically use gestures to communicate. They nod "yes" or "no," point to something they want, or raise their arms to signal that they want to be picked up.

But parents can't always understand just what their child needs, and teaching your baby formal sign language can help reduce some frustration. It takes serious commitment, patience, and energy, though. You'll probably have to enlist the help of your baby's father, relatives, and childcare providers, too, so they can reinforce the signs you are using. And since it may take several months before your baby starts to sign back, you'll probably be moving on to talking by the time you've both mastered sign language.

But don't be discouraged: If you really want to give sign language a try, it might be a fun activity for you and your child. It can be taught at an early age because the movements it requires are easy for babies to learn. Signs aren't tough for adults, either: Most are iconic  -- they look like what they represent. For example, bed is signed by tilting the head against two flat palms held together at the cheek.

If you decide to embark on this communication adventure, you can begin using simple gestures for words, actions, and emotions when your baby is around 7 or 8 months of age. To get started, visit your local bookstore or library to get sign-language books and tapes specifically for use with hearing babies. You can also check your community calendar for baby-signing classes or look for baby-signing websites.

You can incorporate signs into daily activities  -- such as eating, bath time, bedtime, diaper changes, or car rides  -- and to indicate common things like milk, dog, shoe, teddy, or bottle. You can also convey concepts such as more, up, down, or finished as well as signing what your baby is feeling, such as tired, happy, in pain, hungry, thirsty, or full.

Some advocates of baby signing recommend making up your own commonsense signs that work for you and your baby. Most others, however, strongly encourage the use of American Sign Language (ASL), the recognized language of the hearing impaired. Remember to keep it fun, though. If this project becomes frustrating and overwhelming, don't feel pressured to continue. You and your baby can communicate just fine without it, in the regular ways.

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