Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pointing Is Far More Important Than You Might Think

Parents often wonder what their baby is thinking... I rarely have that question enter my mind as I've put my first language of ASL to use in teaching my babies to sign in order to convey what they are thinking, not just what they want or need. Being an interpreter as a young child for my mom, who is deaf, helped me see how to read what underlying messages are being conveyed via body language, facial expression, and tone (whether that tone be silent or audible).

In the beginning I did what a lot of parents do which is focus on some of the signs that would be useful for me to know when my baby was hungry, needed a diaper change, wanted milk, or some other need addressed. What I quickly learned was that she had almost no interest in paying attention to those signs, as she could communicate them to me pretty easily, showing some frustration whether by crying or that very recognizable baby moan or whine. What often accompanies that moan or whine is the pointing at an object, as if to say "I want that".

Having a "high needs" baby I was determined that my baby had things to express to me and set out to fill her request for vocabulary with things that were of great interest to her. After she learned to sign MILK at 4 1/2 months old, her second sign was DUCK! It was quite by accident that I saw she was excited by seeing all these yellow ducks as part of her bathroom decor and I began making the duck sign along with the quacking that made her laugh. It only took a couple days before she was signing DUCK back to me! A light bulb went off for both of us! She was 6 months when she learned her second sign and at her first birthday had 50 signs to communicate her thoughts and her wants.

It was easy to see what things Amberly wanted to know the sign for, whenever she pointed at things or brought them to me I'd provide the sign for her and create a conversation around the object, signing several times. Soon I learned that when she was pointing at something she was not expecting to obtain it, but rather just using a practice that had worked so well... telling me she wanted to know how to sign it so she could talk about it! Think about a time you've seen a baby point out an airplane flying overhead. We don't assume that they want us to pluck it out of the sky to give it to them, rather we know innately that the baby wants to show us the thing that has caught their attention, wants to talk about this amazing thing that flies high above and makes a fun sound to boot!

We know the work of children to be play... so next time you are playing with your baby, be aware of those moments when your baby is enthused and pointing at something of interest. Perhaps they do not actually want the object. Instead what they are saying is "what is this called?" or "can you tell me more about it?" or "what do you think of this?" and of course what I teach in the Sign, Play & Learn classes "can you give me the sign for this, so I can refer to it later?" Pointing only takes a baby so far in communicating, they've got ideas to convey about things that are not present just as adults do. Signing parents report regularly that their child will stop what they are doing, look up and sign DOG for example, perhaps thinking about the dog they encountered on the morning stroll around the neighborhood. Simply amazing to see the wheels turning in a baby's mind at the young age of 10 months and allowing them the opportunity to initiate conversation.

There is a great correlation between how many signs your baby learns and how well they acquire verbal words, and hence build that budding brain's love of learning. If there is a positive outcome in being able to communicate their thoughts of course they are eager to learn more! Take your baby beyond pointing and give them a tool that will leave you both speechless.

Joann Woolley is owner and instructor of Sign4Baby in San Diego teaching parents how to communicate with their preverbal baby using American Sign Language. With her in depth knowledge of ASL as her first language she takes you beyond just the basics in signing, also filling your parenting toolbelt with parenting tips and tricks coupled with signing as a great boundary teaching (disciple) tool for toddlers. View the schedule of classes at

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