Originally published Oct. 17, 2014
By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
As Irma Sanchez, a child care giver at UTEP’s University Heights Early Learning Center, flipped through a book with pictures of wild animals, 16-month-old Diego Jimenez crossed his arms over his chest when he spotted a bear.
“That’s right, there’s a bear!” said Vanessa T. Mueller, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Speech-Language Pathology program at The University of Texas at El Paso, as she held the wide-eyed toddler in her lap.
Diego is among dozens of children between 5 months and 3 years old at the YWCA day care on the UTEP campus who are learning baby sign language from their caregivers. The sign for “bear” is done by crossing their arms over their chest, making their hands into claws and scratching their chest twice. Diego simplified the sign by giving himself a bear hug.
Mueller recently hosted two training workshops for the day care’s staff where they learned American Sign Language (ASL) for 200 words infants and toddlers can use to communicate when they want food, a toy or to convey an emotion.
The training is part of a study by Mueller, which examines the effects of baby sign language on alleviating caregiver stress and the developmental outcomes of the children in the day care.
“At first it was stressful because (the babies are) crying and I don’t know why they’re crying,” said Sanchez, who has been working at the day care for 14 years. “It could be (they want a) bottle or something else. So you give them things, but you don’t know what they want. If they tell me what they want, it’s a tremendous (help).”
Infants develop gross motor skills, which involve the movement of the arms, legs and the entire body, before they develop their ability to speak. Their inability to communicate with others when they’re hungry or tired can often lead to frustration and tantrums.
“There have been reports that baby sign helps alleviate some of the stress involved in communicating with children because (parents and caregivers) can’t ask them what they want,” Mueller explained. “With baby sign, babies are not frustrated because they can get what they need and the parents are not frustrated because they can understand their children more easily.”
According to Mueller, the use of baby sign not only allows parents and caregivers to communicate with their pre-verbal children, but research shows baby sign can increase a child’s language and speech development, IQ and cognitive skills, and parent and child bonding.
Mueller also has seen firsthand how baby sign can increase a child’s interaction with the world.
Mueller’s son started signing when he was 7 months old. She remembers him signing “daddy” – tapping his forehead twice with his thumb – when he wanted to know where his daddy was or making the sign for “dog” whenever he heard their dog bark.
“He was interested in lots of different things and I never would have known if I hadn’t taught him how to sign,” Mueller said.
After conducting baby sign workshops for parents, Mueller decided to focus on day care workers for her new study because children spend most of the day with them. Child care workers also have the additional stress of caring for more than one child, which can lead to burnout.
“Any time we learn something new, we’re enhancing our own skills as child educators and the caregivers are all excited about learning sign language and using it with the children,” said Lorraine M. Valles, University Heights Early Learning Center director. Valles estimates that 80 children at the day care will be exposed to baby sign each day.
Mueller and two graduate students spent the first two Saturdays in October teaching 12 staff members signs that would be most appropriate for the day care, such as mommy, daddy, water and bottle. They also showed child care givers strategies on how to implement the signs with children.
For example, Mueller suggested that they teach the sign for “hungry,” before feeding the baby so the baby associates hungry with wanting food. Caregivers show the child the sign for hungry by forming their hand into the letter “c” and then moving the hand down from the neck to the middle of the chest. They then feed the child and manipulate the child’s hand into making the sign.
“It’s all just natural learning that the child is doing anyway with spoken language,” Mueller said. “We use those strategies with speech. If you modeled the use of the sign, then the child will pick that up in addition to the spoken word.”
It has been Valles’ experience that children learn new things through repetition. She has been practicing baby sign with her 11-year-old son at home to improve her skills.
“The more that we use (baby sign), the more that (the babies) will be able to pick it up and use it as well,” Valles said. “Children like to imitate.”
Mueller recently published a study where she found that exposure to baby sign does change the way children understand language around them.
The study involved 20 children between 6 months and 15 months old. Mueller looked at how children were able to pick out individual words that were associated with signs in running speech.
In six weeks, Mueller plans to return to the day care to see if the children’s communication has improved with their day care providers and parents.
Valles recommends that other day care facilities follow the UTEP’s lead and take advantage of baby sign opportunities.
“This is been a fantastic opportunity for us,” Valles said. “We’re very grateful that they selected our center to do this study.”
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