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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.

Ms. Foster is checking to see if the mothers have done their homework.

"Ball. Doll. Phone. Teddy bear." They all say the words and sign them to their babies, if they're watching, and to each other. Some are obvious, like the two-handed I'm-holding-a-ball sign; others are thoughtful, like the nose-touch gesture for doll.

After one tune, smiley baby Paul, sitting to the left of Ms. Foster, butts his two fists together. The sign for more. Everyone squeals with delight -- and Paul beams.

"That's a big one -- more food," says another mom, Toni Giancola.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular signs include the one for milk. When the group sings and signs a song called Please May I Have More Milk? the babies really perk up and watch, instead of chewing on plastic toys, as they seem fond of doing.

"We use what's motivating," Ms. Foster says later.

After the class, Nadine Cannata says her big-eyed baby, Matthew, "laughs when I do the sign for milk at home. So does my husband."

Other families take a do-it-yourself approach. Jennifer Robinson of Orangeville, Ont., hasn't taken any formal training, but uses sign language with her 15-month-old baby, Lauren.

"I've always known the sign for 'milk' and 'more,' " the 32-year-old says. "Friends of my parents taught their daughter, who has Down syndrome, those signs because she was so late to talk."

Now, her daughter makes the sign for "more," while saying "mo." After reading a few articles on the topic, Ms. Robinson worked signs into their early "conversations."

"It didn't even feel like a lot of effort," she says. "Lauren caught onto 'milk' quite quickly, and it was as exciting as her saying her first word! Then she could tell me, without just crying, that she wanted milk. I started out by saying "milk" and making the sign before breastfeeding her. Before I knew it, she was telling me when she was ready."

In addition to easing parent-child communication, Ms. Robinson says watching her daughter beam when she mastered each sign was a bonus. "Lauren was so obviously proud of herself."

And experts say this sense of glee -- not a higher IQ, which has been suggested by some studies, and certainly not parental bragging rights -- should be the inspiration.

Ms. Bingham says baby signing shouldn't be about hitting benchmarks; her son started signing at nine months, and her daughter at 11 months. Ms. Halpenny also says she discourages comparing size of vocabulary.

"I don't want parents having anxiety about what's coming next. There should be no expectation or pressure."

There are some experts who still question the benefits of these classes. In a recent issue of the U.K. journal of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, some members suggested baby sign language was only "preying on middle-class worries."

Nevertheless, other academics are making baby signing a hot area of academic research. Emily Thom, a developmental-psychology graduate student and researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, was inspired when observing signing babies in the university's preschool.

"At first it shocked me because I didn't know what they were doing," she says. "It ended up being really effective."

She plans to build on studies that have shown correlations between baby sign language and a child's higher verbal ability.

"I think this small phenomenon is going to show us quite a bit about general language development and how we learn. I've seen some of the benefits in the classroom and now in the laboratory as well.

"There are robust findings alone that just paying attention to language and labelling and the amount of time spent with the child can boost language development. It's an interesting thing to unpack."

Back at Ms. Aplin's house, mom and daughter have been nattering away about cereal, water and various toys -- often with Ms. Aplin talking and Jenny nodding. But Jenny seems to have the signal for ball down pat, even if she has trouble finding it.

And when the visitor goes to leave, there's no mistaking the universal goodbye signal.

Tralee Pearce is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

Sign sites

http://www.weehands.com

The Canadian site run by WeeHands, a successful five-year American Sign Language-based program offered in Ontario, Yellowknife and the United States. Japan and Australia are soon to come.

http://www.signingbaby.com

An American site, with cute-as-pie photos of signing kids and excellent FAQs.

http://www.ellacentre.com

The Toronto parenting centre offers WeeHands classes among other developmental courses

http://www.commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/aslweb/browser.htm

An ASL browser, with a video dictionary: Click on a word and watch a person sign it back to you.

http://www.handspeak.com

A for-fee subscription service for ASL.

-- Tralee Pearce

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