Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Baby Signing

I came across baby signing years ago while I was in college, studying psychology. At the time, I was discovering a new field called language acquisition and development. This is the study of how children learn language, and fine tune their knowledge of the world around them through language. I was deeply interested in literacy and how children learn to read, as well as how they learn grammar rules. But my job at the time was a lead teacher in the one-year-old classroom at a nursery school, and I was becoming increasingly aware of how miraculous it is that infants learn language. It is never taught to them by conventional teaching methods, and it is much more than pure mimicking as 90% of all sentences are completely novel. Yet sometime within the first eighteen months of life, sometimes even before the child can walk (which is by far an easier feat in coordination!) an infant will utter his first word. It is like a sunrise over the grand canyon: too beautiful and elegant to be explained, but too beautiful and elegant not to try to explain it. The more I watched these little wonders learn to speak, the more I wanted to know "how do they do it?"

I began reading countless studies, and working on my own through the guidance of Dr. Merriman at Kent State University. We ran studies on how preschoolers generalize grammar, how young toddlers begin to categorize names of objects, and how infants and young children develop the vast amount of phonetics needed for the English language. But none of these really answered the true question of my heart "HOW do humans learn to speak?" It takes so much coordination between the tongue, muscles in the mouth, when breath is held and released, and when vocalization occurs in any given phoneme. These are things that cannot be mimicked, yet we learn them, perfect them, and use them every day without thinking about it. We learn new words and put them into a category unaware that we are doing so. We make up sentences that have never been spoken.

It was my quest to answer the big "how" question that brought me to a study conducted at Ohio State University on using sign language with infants. I'd read about several studies on sign language for deaf infants and children, how they spontaneously will begin signing and creating a method of communication if none is given to them from their culture, and how infants of deaf parents will begin to babble phonemes of ASL using their hands. But this study was different. This was about using sign language in a hearing community of infants to understand their needs before they can verbalize. I do not remember the name of the professors conducting the research, nor do I remember a lot about their particular paper published. But I do remember that it lit a fire under me. Immediately after reading the paper, I implemented an ASL componant to my lesson plans at the nursery school. I turned my classroom into my own little language lab. I had the full support of every parent in my classroom, who were eager to also learn the signs and try to communicate with their children.

Teaching signs to an older infant was extremely easy, I found. Saying the word as I was signing led to a quick association between the sign and the meaning of the word. Within a couple of months, my preverbal infants were telling me they wanted "more" to eat, they wanted their "milk" cup, and if they were "hurt." After a while, they were even able to tell me that they wanted me to read the book about "rockets" or that they had dropped their "bear" and couldn't reach it! I was in astonishment as these older infants communicated with their hands. As months passed, we noticed they began putting signs together to communicate in sentences of signs. They began speaking at a much earlier age, and the infants that were introduced to my program early in infancy began showing understanding of language as well as complex problem solving much earlier than we expected. This was not a scientific study, but an exercise in observation.

When I had my own child, there was no question that I would begin signing with him at an early age. Signing with a young infant takes work and patience, as they will not produce signs for months to come. But being persistant has paid off. After teaching Daryl a few signs that he can use, and introducing sign language to Jonah in context, Jonah finally began paying attention to our hands. I noticed about a month ago that Jonah would flit his eyes back and forth between my face and my hands while I was speaking and signing to him. Recently, I have noticed that for events that I always give a sign for, such as a diaper change, he looks at the level that I always make the sign, as if he is anticipating the sign. He is showing signs of understanding the sign for "nurse" as he kicks his feet in excitement and begins to root with his mouth when I ask him "do you want to nurse?" while making the sign.

It is my hope that soon this understanding will become the ability to produce signs and communicate his needs as well as his desires. Our ultimate goal is to use language to create an awareness of the world around him, and to help him better understand his surroundings. We are hoping that it will create an empathetic individual with the means to communicate and problem solve efficiently. But for these early months, I am still content to take wonder at my little baby and the thought of all that his little brain is processing every second of every day.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Elimination Communication Day 1: An Experimental Trial

"Steve is potty training his baby!" Daryl told me days after we had brought Jonah home from the hospital. Steve is a friend who's baby at the time was only around seven months old. "That's not right." I said "Either you're mistaken, or Steve is off his nut." Potty training at seven months? How could that be when infants do not have the control or mental capacity to acknowledge when they are eliminating?

Like the vast majority of western culture, I believed that children are not capable of controlling their elimination until nearly two years of age, one year was the earliest a child would ever begin showing signs of potty training. I believed this despite my experience with infants and witnessing infants controlling their eliminations. It is a child-rearing "fact" that is bore into us from culture. After Daryl mentioned his friends' endeavors, I came across something on the internet that talked about "elimination communication." The process in which mother and child actually communicate about elimination, and mothers tune into cues given by their infant that signal when they have to go. Is this what our friends were under taking? It still seemed bizarre. Babies without diapers was just a mess waiting to happen. But, my curiosity caught up with me as usual and I had to read more about where people would get such an idea. What I found inspired me. Mothers in several cultures such as India and African cultures, never use diapers. From the day her infant is born, the mother can sense via cues given by the infant, that her child needs to go to the bathroom. She takes her child to the appropriate place, and in turn gives her child a cue to eliminate. The child does, and the two continue life without a diaper completely clean. After reading about such cultures, I began thinking doesn't it make sense? Who would want to have a soggy, slimy, smelly bulk of diaper between their legs. Isn't using a diaper kind of laziness, so that parents can simply attend to their child's waste at a time convenient to them, as their child sits in wetness? I decided we would try. Afterall, the only ill effects that could come out of trying would be pee everywhere, and that is easily cleaned.

At the time, we were moving from Cleveland to Toledo, and it was not an opportune time to break through cultural barriers with a diaperless baby. Now that we are settled into our new home, and the hectic holidays are behind us, it is time to give it a try. I was re-inspired upon receiving a gift from our friends, which was a book outlining Elimination Communication. Despite hesitations, I decided the only way to do this was to jump right in.

To tune into the cues that Jonah gives before he eliminates, and to find a pattern in his elimination schedule, we spread our cloth diapers over the floor and lay him naked on top of them, and observed. What I found was actually very interesting to me. While I expected a show similar to that of Buckingham Fountain, the entire two hours that he lay naked he did not urinate. It was not until I pinned a diaper onto him, coverless so that I could know immediately when he urinated, that he went. Later in the day, I had him in the sling to put laundry in the dryer, and I just had a feeling that he had to urinate. I felt his coverless diaper, and sure enough after a second or two, I felt a spot of warm wetness growing over the front of the daiper. As he urinated, I made the "sssss" sound as prescribed in the books and websites that I have read.

The purpose of the "ssss" sound is to give your child an associative cue for eliminating. The hope is that once I am able to better predict his need to eliminate, I can take him to the appropriate place (a potty) and give him a cue by making the "ssss" sound, and he will go. The same method is used for bowel movements, only a different cue is chosen.

I am choosing to venture down this path for several reasons. Although it is more work now, if our goal is reached it will be far less work than potty training Jonah at the age of 24 months. The reason western cultures must potty train is because our infants are trained to eliminate in their diapers. When the child begins to develope the desire to be diaper free around 24 months, we must "un-train" them from going potty in their pants. By responding to Jonah's cues and needs now, we are eliminating confusion and frustration for the future. Another reason is pure curiosity. I want to know if it works, and how it works. I want to see my child learn, and discover how we can learn together. Finally, it is just one more way in which mother and child bond and communicate their needs. I am whole-heartedly meeting all of the other needs in my child's life, why not strive to meet his elimination needs as well, rather than putting them off until I am ready to deal with them by changing a diaper.

Jonah is also enjoying our experiment. He was so pleased today to be naked, and not constricted by his clothes or diaper. I have never seen him so happy to be on the floor playing, and he was more mobile than he is when we have "floor play" that includes clothing. In this case, we are following the old addage "if it feels so good, it must be right!"


Despite the name of this web journal, Jonah's Journal, it is I, Jonah's mother, who will be managing and writing posts. I feel that this is as much my journal as it is my four month old son's, because the purpose of this blog is to chronicle the relationship and journey between mother and child from each of our perspectives. I plan on journaling our journey that includes "baby wearing," nursing, elimination communication, and other milestones not only in Jonah's cognitive abilities but also milestones in my parenting. Some people would label my methods as "attachment parenting" but I prefer to call it following my heart.

We have several reasons for creating this journal. One is for our own personal use; to create an organized system for keeping memories. Another is because some of the methods we use may seem a little odd to our family and friends, and we would like to explain ourselves uninterupted. Having this public journal will give others a chance to see that the way we are doing things really does work and is based not only on scientific research and reasoning, but also our instincts. Finally, I am hoping to give a little guidance through my own faults and trials to other mothers and babies going through the same journey. I would like other so-called attached parents to know that they are not alone, and give insight to those parents who are on the fence about these methods.

We hope that you will enjoy reading about our way of life, whether you are a friend, family member, or curious stranger.