FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Imagine being able to communicate with your infant or toddler without having to say a word. It might seem too good to be true, but parents and caregivers have been doing it for more than a decade.
In keeping with the Army Family Covenant's promise to support Soldiers and their families, Child, Youth and School Services is offering baby sign language classes to parents and caregivers interested in teaching their infants how to communicate non-verbally.
The classes are free, and the results are often priceless.
"It opens up (the child's) mind to where they can communicate and are more likely to be smarter," said Shelly Kouchnerkavich, child youth program assistant and baby sign instructor.
Since hand-eye coordination develops sooner than verbal skills, babies who learn baby sign language are able to convey their needs or wants, Kouchnerkavich said.
Studies show that most babies start verbally communicating between 12 and 18 months old, while those who learn baby sign language start signing as early as 6 months.
"As soon as they're born, they're ready to start comprehending some of these things," Kouchnerkavich said, "and if you start as soon as the baby is born - throwing out a sign here and there - he'll be able to pick that up and start relating it to things."
One advantage to baby sign language is that it minimizes frustration between the parent and child.
"Rather than cry or throw a tantrum while you're left guessing what's wrong, they can indicate to you that they have a dirty diaper, that they're hungry, thirsty or tired," she said. "That sign language is going to come in so handy for them to be able to express themselves."
Baby sign language has also been proven to help autistic children and those with speech impediments.
"If your child is autistic and they're not developing those verbal skills like they should, then signing is just so much better for them because they have something to do with their hands," Kouchnerkavich said.
She recalled a 2-year-old boy she met who was having a hard time expressing himself verbally, but was able to get his point across using baby signs.
"He had such a speech impediment that everything came out garbled, and you wanted to encourage him to speak because he needed to practice his verbal skills," Kouchnerkavich said. "But at the same time, he needed to be able to say he was thirsty, I need some water, my diaper's dirty ... those are the things that made his life a whole lot easier."
Specialist Brandon Wood of 301st Manuver Enhancement Brigade and his wife, Pfc. Jamienail Wood of 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, are expecting their first child in April and decided to attend the class together.
"My sister did a lot of work-related child studies, and said she's heard a lot of good feedback and that it's proven to be effective," Brandon said.
Jamienail said she hopes to teach their daughter baby sign language using both English and Tagalog, a Filipino dialect that she was raised speaking.
"(Kouchnerkavich) mentioned frustration ... It will be good when we get this down and she's able to tell us what's wrong or what she wants," Jamienail said.
One point Kouchnerkavich made is that while baby sign language is an effective means of communication, it is not intended to substitute learning English or any other primary language.
"Verbal communication remains the goal, so it's important to use words with each sign," she said. "If you really take the time and truly want to use it and make good use of it, it's really interesting to be able to do that, and it can be a lot of fun."
Laura M. Levering is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.