Northwest NEWS

July 8, 2002


'Sign, don't whine' is the focus of new parent-baby classes

by Deborah Stone
   Features Writer
   Babies cry and babble, point and make various gestures to communicate their needs and wants long before they're capable of speech. Often, however, they can become frustrated in their attempts to make their desires known to parents and caregivers, who in turn experience their own frustrations when trying to interpret these noises and nonverbal actions. To help deal with this problem, early childhood development researcher Joseph Garcia (based in Bellingham) began using American Sign Language (ASL) with pre-verbal hearing babies and their parents and discovered that it was an effective, empowering tool to aid early communication. Garcia went on to write a book on his discoveries entitled "Sign With Your Baby" and since then, his methods have gained in popularity, making them one of the newest trends in parenting.
   Edmonds resident Nancy Hanauer, a Washington State Certified Teacher with over 11 years of teaching experience, is putting Garcia's work into practice through her series of Signing With Your Baby classes, held locally and in the Greater Seattle area.
   In 1991, Hanauer first began teaching deaf and hard of hearing students and acquired her fluency in ASL. She eventually moved on to working with hearing students who were struggling in reading and learned much about language acquisition in this setting. Over the years, she became aware of research about the use of ASL as a means to communicate with pre-verbal hearing babies.
   "I read about studies that showed that babies were able to communicate via sign language at about seven or eight months of age months before they were able to speak," explains Hanauer. "They are not able to say what they want, but they are already fluent at gesturing and they can show what they want. I had a colleague who had taught her hearing baby ASL and found the same result. The notion really intrigued me."
   About 18 months ago, Hanauer took a leave of absence from her special education teaching position to pursue teaching children's art classes on a full-time basis. She had been doing some of this on the side and wanted to give it a go full time. On a whim, she threw a Signing With Your Baby (SWYB) class into the mix of class offerings and within three days, her first class was filled to capacity.
   That was 18 months and almost 200 families ago. Since then, she has scaled back on her art classes, turned in her letter of resignation to the school district she worked for, received additional training from Joseph Garcia's staff on methodology and practice and is now pursuing teaching SWYB classes on a full-time basis. "I absolutely love teaching my classes!" says Hanauer. "The families I work with have been wonderful and I have been thrilled with the response I've received to my classes and workshops. It's been so gratifying to work with parents and babies and empower them with a skill that will strengthen their bond, initiate earlier communication and reduce frustration."
   Hanauer's classes meet once a week for an hour, over a four week session. She uses Gracia's book as the basis of her curriculum, but also includes a variety of additional signs which are baby-oriented and not covered in as much detail in Gracia's book, including foods, animals, colors, numbers and letters. In the classes, babies and their parents learn about 80 ASL signs that are most relevant to a baby's needs, such as the signs for "more," "change," "sleep," "milk," "ear hurt," and "hug."
   According to Hanauer, learning just a few signs can be helpful in enabling the baby to communicate what he/she wants. She says, "It's an effective temporary method of expression." She incorporates songs, stories and other hands-on activities in her curriculum and uses a light-hearted approach to make learning fun for parents and their babies.
   Hanauer's classes are designed for parents with babies as young as five months to parents with young toddlers, up to approximately 18 months old. She believes that it's never too early to start signing with babies and the introduction of sign language at a very early age definitely won't harm them.
   However, she says, "Sign language will begin to have more relevancy to your little one at about seven or eight months. Most research has shown that at approximately this age, babies have the ability to remember a sign, the motor skills to produce the sign and the cognitive ability to understand the sign." Hanauer emphasizes that it is the consistency of the use of the signs on a daily basis that is the key to success of signing babies. As with all other skills, babies develop at their own pace and some will begin signing soon after being introduced to a sign.
   Others will recognize and respond to signs, but won't produce their first sign until a month, or occasionally longer, after being introduced to the sign. According to Hanauer, families she has taught report that their baby's signing vocabulary increases as the baby grows and that by the time they turned one, they knew and used as many as twenty signs and as many as seventy signs by the time they were two years old.
   She says, "At this stage of development, the average baby certainly can't vocalize that many words, so imagine how empowering this would be for your baby!" Hanauer cites the many benefits that can come from signing with babies. In addition to relieving frustration and developing stronger parent-child bonds, signing babies often develop a better understanding of language and increase their language competency, experience higher levels of self esteem due to feeling empowered with an effective way to express themselves and have fewer tantrums because their needs and wants are more clearly communicated.
   "Sign language allows you to peek inside your baby's mind to see what he/she is thinking, feeling and observing," adds Hanauer. "The benefits are numerous when you teach your baby to sign, not whine!"
   Parents who have taken Hanauer's classes wholeheartedly agree. "My baby and I really enjoyed the class," writes parent Cindy Erickson of Everett. "I continue to use sign language with my baby daily and believe teaching her early (at seven months) has really helped. I can clearly understand what she wants and if I sign something to her, she knows exactly what I am asking or telling her. It is so much fun to know that she understands and can respond."
   Ony Huffman of Edmonds reports, "It was amazing to me at how natural it was to use my hands to sign and communicate with my son. It's exciting for us to see our son use signs. It's also neat to see him sign with his older brother who already knew some sign language."
   Hanauer will offer upcoming summer classes at several Seattle area locations, including Bellevue Community College and through the Edmonds Parks and Recreation Department. In the fall, she will hold classes at Children's Hospital, North Community Center and through the Childbirth Education Association of Seattle. She is also available to do in-home classes for four or more interested families. For more information about class schedules and fees, e-mail Nancy Hanauer at