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The new baby talk Add to ...

Dancer Julia Aplin has been home from rehearsal with her baby, Jenny, for less than an hour when a visitor appears at the door. Jenny squishes her hand together and brushes her chin, then nuzzles her head into Ms. Aplin's neck.

"Mommy milk?" asks Ms. Aplin, 37, replaying the gestures back to 11-month-old Jenny.

Neither Ms. Alpin nor Jenny are hearing-impaired. They are among a growing number of families who use sign language with their pre-verbal babies.

And in this case Jenny didn't want to breastfeed, she wanted a cuddle.

"I had read about baby sign language in a magazine and I wanted to try it because I could tell she was getting frustrated not being able to talk," says Ms. Aplin, fixing a cup of ginger tea in the kitchen. "And although we don't practise much, it is something special we have between us."

It's also an intoxicating window into a budding personality.

Ms. Aplin says that when Jenny first figured out the sign for milk -- yes, picture one hand milking a cow -- she would do it repeatedly, even when she didn't want to be fed, filled with glee that she was communicating.

This kind of experience has pushed baby sign language from a grassroots movement to the mainstream in the 10 years since American psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn wrote a seminal book on the topic, Baby Signs: How To Talk with your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk.

Back then, they dispelled the fear that using sign language might stunt a baby's speech development.

"What crawling is to walking, signing is to talking," says Ms. Acredolo, now a professor emerita at the University of California, Davis. "It incites them to communicate better. There is no downside."

Babies learning sign language will generally start signing at nine to 12 months, a few months before they start talking (anywhere in the 12-to-18-month time frame). The promise of opening up that possible three-month gap is enticing, as is equipping children with a language they can use with the hearing impaired or others who use sign language to communicate.

"It's growing by leaps and bounds," Ms. Acredolo says. "In one generation, it'll be what everyone wants to do."

For an idea of just how big baby signing is getting in Canada, take WeeHands, the brainchild of Sara Bingham -- and the course Ms. Aplin and Jenny took. The Whitby, Ont., speech and language therapist was familiar with American Sign Language (some baby signing programs use a modified ASL). After spending a lot of time sitting on her hands and resisting the urge to sign through nursery rhymes in baby classes, she started teaching her son, Joshua, to sign at six months of age.

In 2001, she started her company, WeeHands, giving classes in her living room. She remembers the first parenting trade show where she set up a booth.

"People would look at the sign and walk around me, thinking it was only for special-needs kids."

Now, she has 27 instructors, who have taught close to 4,000 families to sign across Ontario. She's licensed four instructors in the United States and has imminent plans for a program in Japan and Australia. (In Japan, WeeHands will continue to be taught in English and ASL; in Australia, ASL will be "translated" into that country's AUSLAN sign language.)

"Now, after the baby-sign-language scene in Meet the Fockers, [where Robert de Niro signs to an infant with comic success] people want to know how fast they can start." As early as four months of age, she says.

Amy Halpenny, the founder of Ella Centre for Pregnancy and Parenting in Toronto, admits she was intrigued by the Hollywood-friendly baby-signing trend -- Julia Roberts and Debra Messing are reported fans -- when she opened in 2004, so she immediately teamed up with WeeHands to offer classes.

"But to me, it's not a passing fancy," she says of the popular class. "It's not for everyone. It's very specialized learning."

Nancy Foster, who teaches a WeeHands class Tuesdays at the Ella Centre, is full of anecdotes about babies using their limited vocabularies to describe the world as they see it. She knew a pre-verbal baby who, upon seeing a swimming pool, signed the words for "big" and "bath." In addition to being endearingly cute, it was also a chance for the parent to teach both the verbal and signed words for swimming pool.

During a class this week, seven thirtysomething moms sit in a circle with their babies -- most of them about eight months old -- either on their laps or playing quietly on a mat in a cheerful room at the Ella Centre.

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