Monday, March 9, 2009

Screaming in sign language: When caregivers don't understand baby sign

I keep hoping my cool new related posts widget will, you know, actually show related posts. So far it seems random to me, but maybe it's using some algorithm I know not of, or maybe I'm expecting magical mind reading rather than technology. Anyhoo, I'll just have to keep linking the related ones myself. To that end, I'm referring to these today: yesterday's post on changing our sleep schedule and a recent post about our mixed feelings on putting our baby in the church nursery (where all your helpful comments have made it clear that we're not alone in our wishes and concerns), as well as my post on Mikko's progress with baby sign language. You don't have to read them all in advance — I only point them out to refer back to if you're wondering what conversation I'm continuing here.

Yesterday we were cranky all round because of trying to get to bed and up early and having only alloyed success at both. Mikko was what I like to refer to as fragile — sometimes calm, sometimes giddy, but on a knife's edge for turning into a howling banshee.

Signing Time DVDsWe decided to try out the earlier service at church, since it might fit in better with our new schedule, and Mikko was signing to nurse as we walked in, late. I went on in to the back and tried to breastfeed him, but he would have none of it. He kept straining and twisting and whining loudly during the prayer. Prompted by Sam's pained expression, I gave up and walked Mikko down to the nursery instead. He went in calmly enough without me and headed straight for the toy trucks as usual.

I grabbed a pager and settled back in upstairs with the adults to be nice and quiet.

In just a few moments, my pocket suddenly started vibrating. I leaped out of my chair as if I'd been electrocuted and ran off downstairs, forgetting to let Sam know in passing, who had his eyes closed for another prayer.

I could hear the wails as I descended, and a harried volunteer met me at the half-door.

"He keeps pointing to his stomach and head," she told me, clearly concerned that he must be dying.

"Oh," I said, reaching in to pick up my screeching son. "He's signing." I tried to reassure him and her at the same time. "That just means he wants to nurse and he wants me."

I don't think I explained it very well, but I was under some duress, what with the screaming and all. I realized she probably thought he was pointing to the places on his body that were distressing him, but really he was just using his own adapted baby signs for breastfeeding (he kind of just points to his stomach) and mother (he uses his index finger instead of a thumb for mother and father signs).

There was no going back into the nursery, even after a long session of nummies, which he accepted this time, and sitting silently in the service was still out of the question. It was such a very quiet service, maybe due to the early hour. So the three of us ended up in our old haunt, the cry room, where we bugged the heck out of some poor single guy who must have thought it was overflow seating.

What I took away from our experience at this service, good and bad:

     First of all, we all really need to get used to being up early. We've put off starting Mikko in his new preschool until next week, when we hope he'll have adjusted to our revised schedule and be able to accept a separation from us with more equanimity.

     That aside, one thing I liked about the childcare at this early service is its very features as a reduced option. It's only for 0- to 5-year-olds, and what I most appreciated was that all the children were in one room together rather than separated out by age. It also was a smaller group, about eight kids total, so it might be less overwhelming and have a better teacher-to-child ratio than during the busier main service.

     What discouraged me was not unique to this service, but it was the very fact that no one could understand my son's efforts to communicate.

Don't get me wrong — I'm not some baby-sign nut who thinks everyone who doesn't know basic vocabulary in American Sign Language is being rude to my child. I mean, you might want to learn some basic ASL vocabulary anyhow, since it might come in handy (for instance, if you volunteer in the church nursery) and just because it's fun. But I certainly don't expect it of anyone.

Baby Signing TimeBut the fact is that anyone who's close to my son knows his most common signs. "Nummies," in particular, they would have had a chance to see many times over if we had spent even a couple hours together. My friends and family have all learned the sign and many other of the popular ones, just by hanging around Mikko.

These church nursery volunteers, I'm having reemphasized, don't know my son or me a whit. We've never spent time talking, and there's no opportunity when I drop him off for even a few minutes to explain that he signs or give them a quick rundown on the more useful ones.

In contrast, if I left him with family, as I've done a few times, they can figure out what he's trying to tell them. Whether or not they can provide him with what he wants, they can at least reassure him that they understand his desires and can offer an alternative form of comfort.

I feel bad that Mikko was signing so energetically and, as far as he was concerned, clearly, and no one was grasping his meaning. It must have been so discouraging for him and only increased the frustration he felt at asking for nummies and me.

This happens to speaking children as well, of course, before they can be clearly understood by any but their dearest loved ones. (My poor uncle has stories to tell about babysitting me when I was a demanding but unintelligible two-year-old, for instance.) But the benefit of baby signing is supposed to be that it's easier for these verbally challenged young kids to communicate — but it doesn't work if no one's able to receive the message.

This is firming my responsibility to interpret for my son in these situations. I've told his preschool teachers that he signs, and fortunately they already learned the basics for signing with their own son. I've resolved to run through his particular variations with them when I take him there for the first time.

What to do for church I still don't know. We're going to give the early service another shot, and I think I'll try to get there with time to spare for some conversation with the volunteers.

Or we could always just scare people out of the cry room again.

As I try to steer Mikko into bilingualism* (I really need to write a post about the German preschool and my lingual hopes next, I think), I'll have to be prepared for these translation difficulties to continue. I'm looking forward to the day Mikko starts commanding the nursery staff in German while gesturing wildly. He'll get kicked out again for sure.

I used up the only baby signing photo that stock.xchng had, so I've chosen Signing Time ads for illustration instead, because hey, they fit the topic, and I'm happy to be an affiliate now with this mama-started business. I can do a full review later, but if you are interested in signing with your children, I'll just say that we love the Signing Time DVDs (and no one's paying me to say so) for painless vocabulary learning (for the adults!). I haven't tried the Baby Signing Time DVDs yet, but I just checked a couple out of the library and will see what they're like. Since Mikko doesn't watch them but Sam and I do, I figured the older-kids version was right for us! If you're interested in learning baby sign or American Sign Language as a way to communicate with your baby or as a second language, you might find out if your library has any of the series available or suggest they add them.

*Or will it be trilingualism if he keeps learning ASL?

P.S. Is that John Travolta signing "car"?


Unknown said...

Hi Hobo Mama,

I'm a first time visitor to your blog, and happily, a new subscriber. I came via the breastfeeding carnival links and continued reading your posts throughout. What a pleasure your writing and values are to learn more about. I too find comfort in the gurus promoted in your sidebar: Drs. Sears and Newman, KellyMom, and others.

I wish that we could connect further through blogging, but as my "mom blog" is on LJ, the entries are marked private for friends, not transferable through Blogger.

My professional blog is The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy (, but it has been sadly neglected since my little one's arrival. Perhaps one day we will be able to connect through BlogHer or a similar network.

Anyway, I recognize that I'm gushing, but it's well deserved.

Thank you for your thoughts. All the best,

~ Maya

Lauren Wayne said...

Hi, Maya!

I'm so glad you came here. Maybe you'll end up cross-posting some of your mom blog entries sometime through BlogHer or similar, and I can take a look. I've been checking out The New Jew, and it looks like that was really important work for you. Plus, I liked the Hanukkah cards. :) Enjoy your little one and your well-deserved break!


Anonymous said...

...please where can I buy a unicorn?

Related Posts with Thumbnails