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Baby sign language

FARGO, N.D. - As soon as Joseph Belzer wakes up in the morning, he tells his mom he's hungry. And he doesn't have to say a word.

He simply puts his fingers to his lips.

That's the motion for "eat" in baby sign language, a modified form of American Sign Language many area parents use to communicate with their infant children.

"So many times they're crying and you have no idea what they want," says Renee Belzer, Joseph's mother. "It was really nice, especially before he learned to talk."

Joseph learned the baby signs when he started day care at 11 months. He was signing around his first birthday.

"I feel like it was easier for him to communicate with us instead of him getting so frustrated. Even those few signs just helped a lot, just being able to tell what he wanted," says the Fargo mom.

Much like babies wave hello or bye-bye, they can use their hands to express other thoughts.

Tapping their fingers together means "more." Tipping an imaginary cup to their lips says "drink."

In many cases, children learn the signs from their child care providers.

The Cobber Kids Child Care Center in Moorhead started using signs in their infant room - for babies up to 16 months - when the teachers had several children acting out by biting.

Since introducing the signs, the center hasn't had many biting incidents, says Nicole Kittelson, the room's head teacher. They usually start with three signs - milk, eat and sleep - around 8 months of age.

"I think it's really helped with communication. They can let us know what they need," Kittelson says. "We've had children that have been able to sign for diaper. They'll tell us that they have a messy diaper."

She says children whose parents consistently use the signs at home use it more at school. One girl knew about 40 signs by the time she left the infant room, and could put two signs together, Kittelson says.

While the concept was developed about 20 years ago, baby signing has mainstreamed in the past five to eight years, says Nancy Johnson-Seidel, a pediatrics speech language pathologist at MeritCare.

Books on the subject now abound. It provided comedic fodder for the 2004 sequel "Meet the Fockers." A television series "Signing Time!" premiered on public television in 2006. Locally, it airs on Prairie Public at 8 a.m. Sundays.

Johnson-Seidel has been teaching classes on baby sign language for two and a half years. She's also used signs with her two children, 4 years and 16 months.

She says most parents say they want to reduce the frustration that can come when you just don't know what that crying baby wants.

"They are able to communicate their thoughts and wants through signs when their vocal cords aren't mature enough yet to fully do so," she says.

Johnson-Seidel ticks off a list of other advantages from using the signs: building trust, bonding with your infant, boosting self-confidence, jumpstarting intellectual development.

Nicole Rostad Holdman of Fargo says signing with her 1-year-old daughter, Inger, has allowed them to communicate on another level. She used her first sign, "more," at 9 months, while sitting in her highchair.

"It's fascinating to see two-way communication before she can talk," Rostad Holdman says. "We always say, wouldn't we like to know what babies think, and now we can."

A common criticism of signing with babies is that it will hinder them from talking.

Belzer has noticed this somewhat with Joseph, who is now 21 months. He sometimes prefers to sign the word rather than say it.

"We'll say 'say please' and he'll do the sign for it. Eventually he'll say it. He always signs it first," Belzer says.

But Johnson-Seidel says the signs actually encourage children to talk. She uses this analogy: Signing is to talking as crawling is to walking.

And there's one other added bonus: "It's the cutest little thing, that's for sure," she says.