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By Todd English
May, 10, 2005
People in the hearing society often wonder how deaf parents acknowledge the cries of their baby and how they teach them sign language with no spoken words. With the advancement of modern technology deaf parents are now able to be notified of when their baby is crying through visual and/or tactile alarms. With the ability to know when the baby is crying, there is still the matter of how to teach a baby to communicate through the use of sign language. From studies that have been conducted we know that babies can learn how to sign before they can learn how to speak (Snoddon, 2000). This is possible because, “The motor areas of the body mature sooner than the mouth and other language articulators ( Snoddon, 2000).”
Before the advent of the modern baby monitoring devices deaf parents had to keep a very close eye on the baby, since they could not hear the needs of their baby through their cries (Colclasure, 2004). For some parents this would not be a problem, but for others with a busier schedule this might be a concern. On the market today are baby monitoring devices that can help both deaf and hearing parents alike. These devices have two parts; a sound sensor that is placed next to the baby and a receiver that is used by the parents (Colclasure, 2004). The sound sensor detects that the baby is crying and then transmits a signal to the receiver to notify the parents. Some receivers are portable, will vibrate and can be used by deaf and hearing parents alike. However, this is where the similarity ends. The receivers used by deaf parents are sometimes connected to a lamp that will flash when the baby cries (Colclasure, 2004). This might be okay for parents who are light sleepers, but not for deep sleepers. Parents who are deep sleepers can put a vibrating apparatus under their mattress. This device will vibrate the bed when the baby is crying (Colclasure, 2004). These modern advancements have not replaced the need for the deaf parents to place their hand on the baby to ensure that they are breathing, but they have allowed them to go on with their daily routines and still monitor their baby (Colclasure, 2004).
Deaf parents, like hearing parents, teach their babies to communicate through language. This language is taught to them by either speech or sign language, and sometimes both. Since infants don’t have the ability to communicate verbally at a very young age, usually less than 7 months, they use their hands a lot to grab and touch objects around them. Because of this, “Sign language in general seems tailor-made for young children (Snoddon, 2000).” Also, because of these motor skills, babies can learn sign language sooner than they can learn spoken language. In teaching babies to communicate through language, hearing parents and deaf parents alike use the same kind of techniques, even though one language involves hearing and the other involves sight. Deaf parents use sign repetition to teach their babies what an object is. For example, if a parent gives a toy doll to the baby they would sign doll many times to associate that sign with that object (Spencer, 1998). If the parent is signing about an object that the baby cannot touch or an activity, then the parent will move their hands or body so that the baby can see the sign while still looking at the object (Spencer, 2001). To take it even further they tap on the object several times, before and after signing, to help “the baby know what your communication is about (Spencer, 2001).” Another important aspect of teaching sign language is the use of dramatic expression. The signing parent must use strong facial expressions, like when hearing mothers raise the pitch of their voice, to help keep their baby’s attention (Spencer, 1998). Now if babies aren’t paying attention to the parent as they are signing, the parent can tap the baby to signal, “Look at me” to get their attention and to teach them to look at the individual who is tapping them (Spencer, 2001). The last thing that should be taken into consideration is to let the baby begin the communication. If the baby is tired or unresponsive then maybe the parent should let the baby rest and when the baby seems interested and responsive begin teaching them communications again.
With modern technologies and patience deaf parents can attend to their babies just like hearing parents. The only difference between hearing parents and deaf parents is the way that they communicate.
Snoddon, Kristin. (2000, May). Sign, Baby, Sign! Department of Speech Communication. Retrieved 6, May 2005: http://speechcomm.la.psu.edu/faculty/daniels_article.htm.
Colclasure, Dawn. (2004, March/April). The Sound of Love: My Life as a Deaf Mother. Mothering Magazine. Retrieved 6, May 2005:
Spencer, Patricia. (1998, November/December) Making Every Sign Count. Perspectives in Education and Deafness. Retrieved 6, May 2005:
Spencer, P. E. (2001, January) A Good Start: Suggestions for Visual Conversations with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Babies and Toddler. Gallaudet University. Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. Retrieved 6, May 2005: