Otto Speaks…Sort Of

Yes, the boy says “Mama.” Which officially makes him a Mama’s Boy. Which is exactly what I wanted. In all seriousness, I thought it was worth following up on the Otto the Silent post from a few weeks back. I got a few comments on my Facebook page, all of which were totally valid even though they didn’t completely align with one another. So I thought this would be a topic worth revisiting.

The good news is Otto is no longer entirely silent. In a span of a couple of weeks, he’s begun clearly saying “Mama” and occasionally screaming “Nein.” (The “nein” came out when Zoe tried to pick him up and he got angry, so I’m guessing that was actually what he was trying to say.” There has also been an improvement in his nonverbal communication. But this is because–and I hate to even say it—we broke down and taught him some sign language.

It’s not that I have anything against sign language per se. I mean, it’s a whole language used by people with profound hearing or speech impairments. Awesome. But baby signing? Ah, I’ve always figured that was not for me. We didn’t do it with the girls and I’m just not into that baby massage, organic clothing kind of stuff, if you know what I mean. So yes, there you have it. I was prejudiced against baby signing because I thought it would make me a hairy-legged, tree-hugging hippie.I didn’t wear my babies. I didn’t make my own baby food. Everyone sleeps in his or her own bed. I shave my legs. And I was not going to walk around making big theatrical signs trying to achieve some level of communication that seemed, frankly, like I was trying too hard to prove my kid’s smarter than yours. (I mean, obviously. The girls are nearly 5 and as illiterate as they come. What, me worry?)

So let’s be clear. I am not hugging any trees here. But actually teaching a few signs to help a frustrated toddler communicate isn’t the worst parenting decision I could make, is it? I don’t have to start eating granola right this minute, do I? The arguments against baby signing are this: there is absolutely no evidence that it improves language skills or cognition. No well-designed scientific study has been able to demonstrate an advantage for kids who sign. What’s more, if your little one uses signing as a substitute for learning to speak, (Because hey, why say “Pretzel” when you can just tap your chest “Please?”) signing could theoretically delay speech, not promote it.

But the argument for it? I was losing my mind. The gibbon shrieking, fist pumping, cupboard banging monkey child was growing on my nerves. I was desperate.

Which is how we end up making many parenting decisions, isn’t it? You want a cookie, no I think, oh whatever, have the cookie. Just stop trying to climb on Mommy while she’s working on the computer. I’m not proud of those decisions. I’m just saying sometimes it’s easier as a parent to take the path of least resistance. And in this case, it was teaching “Please” “No more” and “Up.” In sign.

Which is the case for baby signing: it might reduce some of the frustration both you and your toddler experience during those long, long months between having an opinion and being able to express it. If you keep it simple and limit it to a few important gestures, it could help bridge that gap toward speech. The important thing is to remember to keep encouraging language and speaking to your toddler, using the same words as the sign to reinforce the fact that he will need to learn to speak. I spend half my life yelling, “Use your words, people, not your tears!” Why should Otto get out of rules his sisters have to follow?

Which brings me back to the comments on Otto’s lack of verbal achievement. Some folks expressed gratitude that they weren’t alone. Another offered the fact that her biomedical engineer son didn’t speak until he was 3. But a few expressed concern that I might be discouraging parents from seeking help if their child does seem to have a speech and language delay.

So let me be clear. If my kid is a few months past his first birthday, and oh, let’s see, is maybe learning 2 languages and was a bit premature, don’t expect me to freak out if he doesn’t have many (as in any) words yet. But if you are approaching that 2nd birthday, it’s would really be time to discuss his language progress with your pediatrician. Obviously, if you are concerned about his hearing, or if you feel his nonverbal communication is not up to par with his playgroup buddies that’s also a reason to act sooner rather than later.

But for us, I’m going to keep shouting “UP!” and kissing Otto all over his cute little face every time he communicates his wishes without sounding like a caged animal. Can you blame me?