Infant Sign Language – PediaCast 087

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  • Infant Sign Language


  • Becka Marsch, Certified parent educator and licensed baby and toddler sign language instructor


Announcer 1: This is PediaCast.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Bandwidth for PediaCast is provided by: Nationwide Children's Hospital — For every child, for every reason.


Announcer 2: Welcome to PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents — The Interview Edition. And now, direct from Birdhouse Studios, here is your host, Dr. Mike.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Hello, everyone, and welcome to PediaCast. It is Episode 87 for Wednesday, November 28th, 2007, our Interview Edition for this week.

Before we get to the interview, you'll notice we didn't have a show yesterday. I'm sorry. I failed you. I was battling a sore throat through the weekend and it was just really bad yesterday. And of course, I didn't call in sick to work. Doctors generally don't do that very often. You have to be really sick, because when we call in sick, it really disrupts the schedule, it puts a strain on the other doctors.

Now, I know, I don't cough on my patients in their direction and we wash our hands before and after every patient. So, there are two hand washings before I touch you even when I'm sick, and I definitely turn the other way if I have to cough and clear my throat and that sort of thing. But unfortunately, it's just very difficult as a physician to call in sick because they have to reschedule all those patients. So then the sick visits that you have, the other doctors have to absorb them. So there are days when many of us are sicker than the patients that we're seeing, but you know, such is life.


Dr. Mike Patrick: Don't feel bad about going to see the doctor, even when your doctor is sick. But anyway, my point — because there actually was a point when I began this — and that is having talked all day in the office, my throat just could not take it. And it feels much better tonight. So I think we are back on track and I apologize for no- show yesterday. But we should get four out this week which is doing pretty good.


All right. Well, today, we are going to be joined by Becka Marsch. She is a certified parent educator and licensed baby and toddler sign language instructor — that's right, baby and toddler sign language instructor — at Learn and Grow Together in Durham, North Carolina. And we're going to talk about the nuts and bolts of infant sign language and the ways it brings parents and their infants together.

Now, we're not talking about babies with a hearing impairment or parents with hearing impairment. We're talking about normal-hearing parents and their infants signing back and forth. So what's that all about, we're going to discuss it after the break.

Don't forget, if there is a topic you would like us to discuss, all you have to do is go to and click on the Contact link. You can also email me at or call the voice line at 347-404-K-I-D-S.

Don't forget, the information presented in every episode of PediaCast is for general educational purposes only. We do not diagnose medical conditions or formulate treatment plans for specific individuals. If you have a concern about your child's health, call your doctor and arrange a face-to-face interview and hands-on physical examination.

And finally, your use of this audio program is subject to the PediaCast Terms of Use Agreement, which you can find at

I know, I know, many of you can recite that by heart, and I appreciate that. But we still have to do it for the newcomers.

OK. And with all that in mind, we will be back with Becka Marsch to talk about infant sign language and it's all going to happen right after this.



Dr. Mike Patrick: Welcome back to the program. In 1982, professor of psychology Linda Acredolo at the University of California-Davis began promoting the concept that babies had the desire and need to communicate prior to their first birthday. But because of the timing and complexity of language development, the same infants did not have the tools they needed to express their needs and desire. In 1985, Professor Acredolo published an article in the Journal of Human Development entitled "Symbolic Gesturing In Language Development: A Case Study".

Joseph Garcia, a graduate student at the same time became interested in Acredolo's work and completed his own thesis on the subject and he went on to advocate for the use of infant sign language and has taught many parents how to use it effectively.

Today, we are joined by Becka Marsch, a certified parent educator and licensed baby and toddler sign language instructor at Learn and Grow Together in Durham, North Carolina to talk more about this increasingly popular form of communication between parents and infants.
So please extend a warm PediaCast welcome to Becka Marsch. Welcome to the program, Becka.

Becka Marsch: Thank you, Dr. Mike.

Dr. Mike Patrick: I appreciate you stopping by.

So, I guess a logical first question would be how exactly did you become involved in teaching infant sign language?

Becka Marsch: Well, when I was about 16 or 17, I first became interested in child care, child development and brain development. So I ended up working in a few day cares and preschools, one of which my friend work in. And we kind of signed with them just the basic so they would be able to tell us what they want.

As I start having children, I signed with them but not as proficiently as I should have, apparently. Once the research came around when I was pregnant with my third child, who's now nine months old, I decided to look further into some companies and get licensed.


Dr. Mike Patrick: Now, what kind of process is that, in terms of getting licensed? Is it a written test? Probably you have to sign, don't you?


Becka Marsch: Yes. There are some programs out there that you really don't need to learn how to sign first. But I chose the WeeHands Program because they do background checks on your credentials and make sure that you've taken some classes in the past. And you take classes beforehand, before you're actually certified.

Dr. Mike Patrick: And then, that certification, is that specific for infants?

Becka Marsch: Our program is basically for infants, preschoolers and toddler ages zero to pre-kindergartens, four to five years old.

Dr. Mike Patrick: OK. So, we're talking in terms of this interview really about normal hearing parents and normal hearing infants. So why teach infants sign language?

Becka Marsch: Basically, to lessen frustration on both ends. Usually, when a baby wants something, their first reaction is to cry.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right.

Becka Marsch: Then, you're there, sitting there playing the guessing game. Do you want this? No. Do you want this? No. If they can tell you what they want before they begin to speak, then, it obviously lessens frustration. If they want a glass milk, they can sign milk. If they want an orange, they can sign orange. If they're tired, they can tell you that. And it basically lessens frustration and help both parties involved.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, I find this fascinating. And I'm not sure why because I consider myself on the cutting edge of things. I definitely keep current in the literature and I'm on the Internet a lot. And for some reason, this had escaped me. And I found out about it, I was listening to another podcast called Jumping Monkeys and Cat Schwartz was on as interview. We've had her on the show before too talking about parent tech gadgets.


But she had mentioned, when she was on the show, that she had taught her child sign language as an infant and she had this parent group that she went to. And this was really the first time that I had heard about this. And then, I started doing a little research on it. Then, you had contacted me about it. I don't know, I find this really fascinating. It's not something that's caught on yet in our community here. But that may change after this podcast.


Becka Marsch: It is actually. I don't remember specifically who, but I also heard there's a few celebrities that are teaching their babies how to sign, too.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, it makes sense…

Becka Marsch: So, if they're doing it, then it might catch on quicker.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. Yeah, yeah, definitely. It makes sense. It makes sense that these little babies definitely have needs that they need to have met. Obviously, they cry to get it, but if they have some better effective way of telling you what it is. And really, it really does make sense to me.

So when is the right age to start doing this?

Becka Marsch: Well, right from day one. All the research like you mentioned, Joseph Garcia, he started his research at six months. And recently, he had said that the earlier, the better. You wouldn't wait six months to speak to your child.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. Right.

Becka Marsch: So starting with them from day one, which should just be as fluent as speaking with them.

Dr. Mike Patrick: So how do you do this? Now, obviously, we can't train a parent in a short podcast just how to do it. But I mean, just in general, what are the sort of the steps that you take to start this process?

Becka Marsch: Well, usually, you could start out with a class. You can look at books but you're not going to have someone there correcting your hand gestures and telling you how to do this and what sign to make. Basically, what you do is start with things that you do everyday, obviously, for babies. Start with diaper changes, learn the sign for milk, bath and any routine signs that you might use during the day.

And if you have animals such as a dog or a cat, you can start with them, too.


Dr. Mike Patrick: So, how exactly do you do this? So, let's say that you're doing the sign for… They have a dirty diaper, so do you do the sign in front of them when they're looking at you just right before you change their diaper? Is that how that works?

Becka Marsch: Usually, model the signs before, during and after each routine. If you're doing the diaper, you do the sign for change and diaper. And then, during, you talk about things that might be going on, like "Do you see the birds?" So you sign for bird. Or "Do you want this ball?" And then when you're done, you say "We're done changing your diaper." Now, you could say, "All you're all dry, you're all clean."

You can also do other things for routine, like if your baby's old enough to eat solids, you give them a little bit of food and you sneak the sign for 'more'. So, "You want more?" and then, give them a little more and keep doing it until they can sign back to you. Obviously, they're not going to sign right away.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. What's the earliest that you've seen babies sign back?

Becka Marsch: Well, about three or four months. My son produced his first sign at four months.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Well, that's just amazing to me.

Becka Marsch: With an approximation.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Sure. Sure. Your mileage may differ with other parents.

Now, are these the same signs that are standard in the American sign language or are these special ones just for babies?

Becka Marsch: No. They are definitely American sign language. You want to find a program that uses American sign language, not gestures. There are a couple of companies I know that just use gestures and I will definitely not recommend them. I won't mention them.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yes.



Becka Marsch: You make sure you investigate each program before choosing one. If you choose one, they just use the gestures and it would probably be hard for others to understand what your baby's saying. Like if they're in day care and their teachers are doing American sign language and they do these other signs, they're not going to know what they want.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. Right.

Becka Marsch: A good way of looking at it is you would not teach your child made-up words for things, made-up spoken words for things. So you should try to find a company, teachers that are going to teach them American sign language.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Great.

Now, I guess we talked a little bit about what specific signs that you do. So you'd mention some of these — basically, the needs that they have and then, things that they want. Or do you just throw everything at them that goes by during the day? I mean, do you do this all day long or is it just for certain things? How do you decide?

Becka Marsch: You should try to sign in your daily routines. Signing with books is also a great way to teach them. Sometimes, it teaches them to read earlier. I've had one fellow WeeHands instructor whose… I think it was her child or somebody else's child started reading books about two or three years old because they were signing and reading at the same time.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Why that just amazes me. So in your experience, most babies that do this, I mean, does it work? I guess, is it a small number that get it or do most babies get it?

Becka Marsch: I think most babies get it, but whether or not they're going to perform for you is a different story.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Just like anything else.

Becka Marsch: But I think that's most children.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, yeah.

Becka Marsch: Some kids might start signing at four, five, six months. Some might be doing it for a year-and-a-half and finally, they do their first sign. Or you might be surprised, they might actually have more words than you thought they did after this.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. Right. So, they were getting it, they just weren't doing it.


Becka Marsch: Right.

Dr. Mike Patrick: So now, what specific problems have you parents… I mean, what kind of setback and difficulties do you see parents have with this?

Becka Marsch: Well, the only one so far, as I said, is the child refusing — not really refusing, just won't sign — just not ready or just doesn't want to.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah.

Becka Marsch: As long as they're consistent, your child will just… Every child is different as you know and they're just going to do it one day and surprise you.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Now, what about children with special needs? When we had kind of conversed back and forth before the interview, you wanted me to add this question in there. I think it's a good one. What exactly children with special needs or where does signing come in and how do you approach that with them?

Becka Marsch: Well, children with special needs, especially the ultimate speech apraxia, Down syndrome and autism that I've read up on are able to, instead of… They don't really know what they want to tell you most of the time, or they can't. So using sign language will help that frustration and less temper tantrum on their side and be able to tell you what they want without having to speak or getting frustrated if they can't speak.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Very interesting. Now, something else about when we're talking about kids with special needs, do you find that they have more difficulty picking sign language just like they do with spoken language or does that seem to come a lot easier? So what's your experience on that?

Becka Marsch: From what I've seen, like I said, it depends on the child.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right.

Becka Marsch: I've seen some pick it up very quickly. I also think it depends on the disability. A child with Down syndrome might pick it up a little bit less easily than a child with speech apraxia.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. Right.


Now, you may not be the right person for this question, but I'm going to ask you anyway, since you're here. We talked about when kids don't make developmental milestone, you talk about being concerned about them from a developmental standpoint. And then, we get them assessed from a developmental standpoint to see a specialist.

I'm just wondering if the developmental pediatricians at the children's hospitals are starting to get referrals for kids whose parents want them to sign but they're not. It's almost like you've introduced a new developmental milestone of when kids should be able to do this and if they're not, does that add to your bank of knowledge for problems that this particular kid is having?

Becka Marsch: I don't think they should be worried. I mean, I'm not a doctor, obviously, But, like I said, they'll sign when they're ready. It doesn't mean that they can't, it doesn't mean that there's something wrong.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right, right.

Becka Marsch: Obviously, if they think there's something wrong, contact the doctor. But I don't know any developmental pediatricians that would take that on as an actual…

Dr. Mike Patrick: So it's not linear with the milestones yet.

Becka Marsch: No.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Although, if it catches on enough, say they should be having a handful of words at one and be able to do a two-word sentence at two. At what age do you say they're starting to sign? I don't know.

Becka Marsch: Well, when somebody asks the question why is my child not talking, I just tell them, my aunt who owns her own CPA firm in Rhode Island didn't speak or walk until three.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. And you see, of course, those kids that are probably are using a lot of gestures, may not officially American sign language but they probably do have lots of gestures that the parents know what they mean, they've used them. So it's really…

Becka Marsch: At a young age, they're going to approximate. I can't expect my nine-month-old to make perfect signs.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Oh, right, right.

Becka Marsch: But you keep modeling the correct sign and eventually, they'll get it.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Now, is this something that you would recommend that parents continue to use even when their child starts to talk?


Becka Marsch: Definitely, there's probably a few good reasons. One is a setting like a church. I'm sure a three-year-old is not going to want to yell out, "Hey, mom, I had to go to the bathroom," and then throw up a sermon. So if the child can't whisper in their parents' ear, they can sign it.

Another one is grocery stores. Across the street is a good one. If they can't hear you and you want them to stop. I've also heard of some parents talking through the window if their child, when they're about to get into some trouble.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Right. Sure. And not to mention that they have a huge head start if they ever wanted to become an interpreter for the hearing impaired and become an interpreter in a church or whatever. I mean, they definitely would have a head start on being able to do something like that.

Becka Marsch: Definitely. And I've heard a lot of stories of little kids signing to their parents and a deaf person walks up and basically passed the parents on the back and had a small little conversation with the child. It's kind of cute.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, yeah, that is great. Now, how would the parents, let's say they're interested in doing this, but they don't live in a big city. They can't just open up the phone book and find sign language classes. How does the average American in a small town figure this out?

Becka Marsch: Well, I'm sure they've probably heard of it from somebody, somewhere. They could go to Google and look up classes in their area. There's always, like a KinderMusic that I think teaches Signing Smart. And there's also WeeHands which I go through and they can look up instructors in their area.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yes. See, I think my eyes have been closed to this. I have this impression you can only do this if you're in a big city and you have instructors there. But I guess this is more widespread than I thought. I'm kind of embarrassed about that.


Becka Marsch: It's OK, your children are older.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Yeah, well, that's true. That's true.

OK, so your websites, I want to make sure we get those out there. You do the And that's the…

Becka Marsch: Actually, that's the one it changed to.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Oh, OK, so now it's the

Becka Marsch: Yeah.

Dr. Mike Patrick: OK, so And then, you also do as well?

Becka Marsch: Yes.

Dr. Mike Patrick: OK, great. And we will put links to those in the Show Notes.

Becka Marsch: And, too.

Dr. Mike Patrick: I'm going to add that in here.

Becka Marsch: W-E-E, yeah.

Dr. Mike Patrick: If they go to, would they be able to find instructors through their website?

Becka Marsch: Yes, they just click on Find An Instructor and they type in their zipcode and there, hopefully, will be a few instructors. If not, they can always sign up.

Dr. Mike Patrick: Great. Yes, yes. So it's weehands —

Becka Marsch: Right.

Dr. Mike Patrick: OK, well, I really appreciate you, Becca, stopping by the program to talk to us about this. And really, as I said, it has opened my eyes to it. And hopefully, we have some listeners out there who had not considered this before. They have some young infants at home and, hopefully, we can together change their lives a little bit, too.

So thanks for stopping by.

Becka Marsch: Well, thank you for having me.



Dr. Mike Patrick: All right, thanks go out to Becka Marsch for stopping by and talking with us about infants and toddler sign language. We really appreciate that.

Also, thanks go out to Nationwide Children's Hospital for providing the bandwidth for this podcast, and to Vlad over at for providing the artwork for the website and the Feed.

And of course, thanks to all of you for taking a little slice of time out of your day to be a part of PediaCast. We really do appreciate that.

Also, thanks to my family for allowing me the time to work on this pretty crazy project for a person who has a full time job.

Don't forget to check out Karen's PediaScribe blog. It is the blogging arm of this adventure. Not venture, it's more of adventure. And she talks today actually, "Can Lazy People Homeschool?" And I found this to be a pretty entertaining, interesting post. So make sure you check that out. Can lazy people homeschool? The answer may surprise you.

Don't forget, iTunes reviews are so, so helpful. If you have not taken the five minutes or so that it takes to do an iTunes review for PediaCast, it would be very much appreciated. We're trying to get 200 reviews by the end of the year. Right now, we're sitting at 150. So we need 50 more reviews in the next five weeks or so. So if you could help us out with that, that would be very nice because iTunes reviews are helpful in terms of keeping you on the Featured page which helps to spread the word about the show.

We also have a Poster page at the at the website. I haven't talked about that much here recently. Basically, you go to and click on the Poster page and there are some PDF files that you can download and print off, and then hang on bulletin boards and the like at community centers and nurseries, YMCAs, wherever parents congregate.


All right, so tomorrow, we are going to answer listener questions which is the show that I had planned for yesterday. But we'll get to it tomorrow.

And until then, this is Dr. Mike saying stay safe, stay healthy and stay involved with your kids.

So long everybody!


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