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Babies learn to speak through sign

Sheryl White of Baby Kneads signs "hat" while placing one on 9-month-old Avery Fournier's head.
Sheryl White of Baby Kneads signs "hat" while placing one on 9-month-old Avery Fournier's head.Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Amesbury couple Erika and Diana Mazzaglia-West’s 14-month-old son, Joshua, has been learning a bit of sign language at home.

“It’s been very helpful,” Mazzaglia-West said. “He knows basic signs, like ‘all done,’ ‘more,’ and ‘eat.’ ”

When she said the last word, Joshua brought his hand to his mouth, as if to demonstrate.

If you’re a parent, you can see the benefits of this early communication.

Your baby’s crying, and nothing will provide comfort. Not a bottle, not a change, not being held, not being put down. With sign language, babies can communicate just as effectively as with speech.

When Clare Dombrowski heard from colleagues about classes using sign language to communicate with babies who don’t have a hearing deficiency, she leaped at the chance to bring it to the Amesbury Public Library, where she is the children’s librarian.


She had used it with her son, and when reading stories in the library.

“It’s good for kinetic learning,” Dombrowski said. “When I read ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ I have the caterpillar crawl up my arm,” she continued, inching her index finger across her forearm. “It’s good for a variety of ages.”

The class in Amesbury was taught by Sheryl White. For 17 years, the Southborough woman has run Baby Kneads, which teaches parents how to communicate with their babies before they learn how to speak.

By signing, White said, babies can communicate much earlier than they can with speech. She said her eldest daughter, Rachel, now 17, could sign “eat,” “milk,” “tired,” and “diaper,” all before she could say the words. Rachel knew over 40 signs at 9 months old, White said, making life a lot less frustrating in her household.

“Parents think it’s just about what babies want and need,” White said. “But you can also find out what they’re thinking about.”


Her son, Matt, now 14, signed “hat” at 10 months old when he saw a capped pen in her kitchen. He was, White said, trying to tell her that the pen wore a hat.

“It’s about talking and bonding,” White said.

White, who also provides baby massage, reiki, and meditation classes, teaches a modified form of American Sign Language meant for hearing families. When she started Baby Kneads in 1999, she was inspired by the work of her father-in-law, Burton White. A renowned child development psychologist who wrote “The First Three Years of Life,” he believed the most critical period in a child’s development occurred between the ages of 8 and 18 months, the period Sheryl White focuses on in her work.

Sheryl White of Baby Kneads signs “more” with Joshua Mazzaglia-West, who has been learning sign at home.
Sheryl White of Baby Kneads signs “more” with Joshua Mazzaglia-West, who has been learning sign at home.The Boston Globe

White began the session in Amesbury by explaining some of the benefits of sign language, her voice occasionally overridden by the sounds of happy babies crawling about. In addition to the obvious advantages of earlier communication, she said, signing at a young age has been shown to help with a child’s self-esteem, eye contact, and ability to pick up social cues. Most appropriately — the event was held in a library, after all — it has also been linked to literacy at an earlier age, she said.

When it came time for White to demonstrate actual signing to the class, she picked up a book. After getting a baby to focus on her, she then enacted the sign for “book,” opening and closing her hands, palms up, as if browsing. When she brought her hands together, they made a clapping sound; “attaching a sound” to her signs, she said, helps keep babies’ attention.


“Book,” she repeated in a high pitch, until the child looked away. She performed a similar exercise with a ball, asking parents to sign along with her. Some of the babies seemed captivated for a while by the ball and the movement, but none signed “ball” back.

Salisbury resident Julia Doherty’s son, Brennan, watched White and the ball with furrowed eyebrows. Doherty said she had been trying to teach him a bit of signing on her own, and that Brennan consistently signs “all done.” Brennan began waving his arms and babbling.

“He’s trying to say something,” White said, laughing.

White took out two smaller bouncy balls. She asked Amesbury resident Shelby Lee’s 9-month-old daughter, Avery Fournier, dressed all in pink, “Which ball?” with signs. When Avery looked at the red one, White gave it to her. If the exercise were repeated often enough, she told the class, a child would begin to understand what it means to be asked a question and how his or her own actions can signal an answer.

White handed out a sheet of signs she considers particularly helpful. The ones for “hurt” and “help,” she said, are perhaps most useful beyond the primary trio of “milk,” “more,” and “eat.” She told the story of a 16-month-old who exhibited no signs of a cold but kept clapping near her ear, an apparent modification of the sign for “hurt.” When her parents brought her to a doctor, they discovered she had a double ear infection, something that would have otherwise gone undetected far longer.


White finished the class by reassuring parents that children still will want to learn spoken English even if they can communicate with sign.

“They’re little mirrors of us,” she said. “They have the motivation. It’s like going from crawling to walking. [Signing is] a temporary solution.”

While the hour-and-a-half lesson didn’t produce instantaneous signing from the babies present, White said that if the parents work with them, signing will happen soon.

“If they practice with them a handful of times, they will know it,” she said. “In the ones over 10 months, I expect some learning happened tonight.”

Sheryl White offers an introductory class on signing for parents and babies at $35, a four-session course for $85 to $100, and private lessons from $125 to $150. For more information, visit babykneads.com.

Christina Bagni can be reached at christina.bagni@globe.com.