Local parents use sign language to bridge communication gap with babies

abredeson@islandpacket.comOctober 8, 2012 

Carrie and Aaron Friesen sit with their three children, Camille, 3, Gideon, 12 weeks old, and Aliza, 1, in the living room of their home in Bluffton. The Friesens teach their children basic sign language to help them communicate their wants and needs better.

DELAYNA EARLEY/STAFF PHOTO

Aliza Friesen is not hard of hearing. She doesn't have a speech delay or any other impairment. Yet the 18-month-old Bluffton girl often uses sign language to communicate.

Her parents, Carrie and Aaron Friesen, began signing with her when she was about 6 months old. They have signed with her older sister, Camille, 3, and eventually will sign with their infant son, Gideon, as well.

The Friesens, along with many parents, sign with their young children because they know that babies are typically able to make gestures before they are able to verbally form words.

The family only uses about 15 words, but that's enough to get by until the children are able to speak.

The Friesens decided to sign with their children because they had seen how effective the method was for Carrie's sister and her family. They bought a DVD called "Baby Signing Time" and began using simple signs, such as "more" and "all done." Other common signs in the Friesen household are: "please," "thank you" and "help."

The couple said they don't respond to the kids when they point to say they want something. The children have to either speak or sign what they want.

"They don't get it until we see it," said Aaron, the middle school youth pastor at LowCountry Community Church in Bluffton.

That does sometimes lead to temper tantrums, but overall the Friesens say everyone is happier because of their use of sign language.

"They're less frustrated; we're less frustrated," Aaron said. "I think it's just as much a huge thing for us as it is for them. ... To be able to communicate with someone who can't talk is very nice. We can help them with that, instead of going through all the motions to try to guess."

And though Camille is able to speak, signing comes in handy at times. Carrie said they were at a youth group event recently, and Camille was on the other side of the room. She signed "potty" to her mother, and Carrie was able to take her to the bathroom. If she hadn't been able to sign that to her mother, she might have had an accident.

"It's kind of fun when they figure things out on their own," Carrie said.

One thing the couple stresses is the importance of consistency in signing.

"It's easy to just let it fly and just say, 'Whatever. It's not important today,'" Carrie said. "But consistency is such a huge thing with it."

Eileen Harms, a speech and language pathologist at the Hilton Head Hospital Pediatric Rehabilitation Center, agreed that consistency is the key to teaching your child sign language. She suggested starting out with just a few signs and consistently using them. She said it's also important to do the sign and say the word at the same time.

Harms said it's best to begin sign language between 8 and 10 months of age and start with words that are important to the baby, such as their favorite toy, food, an action or a person important to them. She said babies are usually ready to sign when they can play "peekaboo."

Harms uses sign language as an aid to encourage language development with her patients.

Three-year-old Iain Marx is a patient at the rehabilitation center. He is nonverbal. The Hilton Head Island boy has a genetic disease called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors in the nervous system and sometimes developmental delays.

Iain's mother, Alexandra Marx, said before he learned sign language, Iain would cry all day. Now, he is able to tell his parents what he wants.

"Regardless of whether there's a diagnosis or not, it's a great tool to really begin communication with your child," Marx said. "If we didn't have it, Iain would be so much worse off because we would not be able to express what we need."

Harms said some parents are afraid that if they use sign language with their children, they will not transition to speech. She said studies actually have shown that signing encourages speech.

"Once they realize the power of a word spoken, once they get all the neurological connections formed, it's easier and it's quicker to speak," she said. "So they drop the signs."

Harms said sign language is also a great way to bond with your baby and have some fun.

"It's fun to teach your baby, which is what you're going to be doing your whole life," she said.

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