A Good Start: Visual Conversations with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Babies and Toddlers

Like all babies, Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) babies learn language best in natural situations with people who care about them and know them. All parents have natural instincts about how to interact with their babies, how to show them love, and how to communicate, even before babies can understand and use language.

Deaf parents emphasize some communication behaviours more than most hearing parents, and these behaviours are very helpful for Deaf and HH babies. When hearing parents include these behaviours with their Deaf and HoH babies, babies pay attention better and learn language earlier.

FREQUENT, POSITIVE COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR BABY HELPS LANGUAGE DEVELOP FASTER
Needs: Developing strong, positive bonds with parents and caregivers is crucial for babies, and this happens naturally when parents respond to their baby’s needs. Smiles, gentle touches, and games like peek-a-boo strengthen bonds between babies and parents and are a natural way to communicate.

Senses: Hearing parents naturally raise the pitch of their voices and use a lot of rhythm and a sing-song way of speaking when talking to babies. They also gesture, matching their hand movements with word rhythms, use exaggerated, happy facial expressions. They also touch their babies often by stroking the baby’s face, arms, and legs, and sometimes make “bicycle” movements with the baby’s legs. All of these behaviours are important because they communicate with babies using more than one sense: vision, sound, touch. All of these behaviours are important for Deaf and HoH babies too: they can receive messages through senses other than hearing.

Deaf parents don’t use speech as much as hearing parents, but they emphasize the other senses more. They repeat signed messages and make the movements “dance” with rhythm. They stroke and touch their babies more often and frequently make signs on the baby’s body. For example, one Deaf mother of a three-month old signed “Pretty baby” by making the sign “pretty” on the baby’s face while smiling and watching her baby, smiling even brighter when the baby smiled back.

Babies love these exaggerated expressions: they watch, imitate, smile, and laugh. Exaggerated, positive gestures and signs make Mommy interesting to watch, and baby learns that it is pleasant and important to watch Mommy.

If hearing parents include these behaviours with their Deaf and HoH babies, their communication will be more interesting and it will be easier to keep baby’s attention.

BE RESPONSIVE

Notice where baby looks and talk about it: Babies are more interested in communicating when they decide the “topic.” Language learning happens better when parents sign/talk about an object or activity that baby is interested in. Babies and children whose mothers respond to or follow their interests develop language faster than those whose mothers change the topic frequently, whether the baby is Deaf, HoH, or hearing.

For example, if baby picks up a toy truck, it’s better to sign/say, “Oh, a truck. You want to play with the truck?” rather than, “Let’s play with this doll instead.”

Responding to baby is natural when parents are encouraged to simply play and communicate, not act as “teachers.” Changing topics or redirecting the conversation is effective sometimes with older children, but not with babies and toddlers.

Pay attention to arm, leg, and body movements: When playing with and responding to your baby, it’s important to notice their movements. Researchers have noticed that Deaf and HoH babies move their arms and legs more often than hearing babies. One hearing mother thought her baby was hyperactive, but a Deaf mother thought her baby was trying to sign. Regardless, it’s important to respond to your baby as if their movements are meaningful so that your baby understands they have a way to communicate and get your attention.

Respect baby’s right to stop playing or communicating: Just like adults, babies need “down time.” When tired or over-excited, babies will often look away from the communication and lose their happy expression. The best response is to wait quietly for a short time to see if baby restarts the communication.

HELP BABY SEE THE COMMUNICATION AND LANGUAGE THAT YOU USE Move your hand or body so that baby can see your communication while looking at a toy or activity: In their early months, babies spend a lot of time watching the person communicating/playing with them. By 5-6 months, most babies become interested in objects, exploring them by looking at and moving them, and babies spend less time looking directly at the people communicating with them. For Deaf and HoH babies, this time is a special challenge because they need to see communication in order to understand.

One good strategy with young babies is to move your hands to sign or gesture on or near something that baby is looking at. That way, baby can see your communication without having to look away from the object or activity.

If babies look up at their mother after she has signed near the object, Deaf mothers make the sign again. This way, baby learns to switch their attention from the object, to Mommy, to the object again. However, this skill can take time for babies to develop, sometimes not until 13 months or later.

Move the object in front of baby, then in front of your face – when baby can see both, communicate: Deaf mothers do this often. It works best when Mommy moves an object Mommy and baby have been playing with together, because Mommy can use language that responds to the baby’s interests.

Tap on the object a few times before communicating about it, then show the sign for the object (e.g. “ball”), then tap on it again to allow the child to connect the object with the sign.

Tap on baby to say “Look at me”: Deaf mothers gently tap or pat their baby’s shoulders, arms, and legs with a flat hand to signal to baby to look up for communication. Babies whose mothers use it often had better sign language skills at 18 months and two years of age.

However, babies don’t understand this signal at first: they have to learn that it means, “Look at me.” Deaf mothers usually combine tapping with other communication strategies. For example, one mother tapped her baby’s shoulder, then rubbed baby’s leg, placed an object in front of baby and then near her face while tapping baby’s shoulder again. This baby learnt the meaning of tapping before 18 months and then would look up quickly when lightly tapped.

It can be difficult to know how to use tapping with an individual baby. Some babies seem resistant, while others respond quickly. Be sensitive to your baby’s personality. There are no rules, so hearing mothers can benefit from seeing how Deaf adults use it with babies.

Relax and wait for baby to respond on her own: Wait, then quickly sign or say something to your baby. This can require patience because some babies don’t often look up. But if Mommy communicates in an interesting and responsive way when baby does look up, it encourages baby to do it more in the future.

GRADUALLY CHANGE YOUR COMMUNICATION TO MAKE BABY’S TRANSITION TO LANGUAGE EASIER

When baby shows they are beginning to understand language, start using short sentences, plus pointing at/tapping objects: Deaf and hearing parents both do the same thing: when baby begins to show signs of understanding language, parents naturally begin to use simple sentences that model language for their children. Eventually begin to use longer sentences as baby understands more and produces more language herself.

Repeat words, signs, short sentences, and tap objects and point to activities: This gives baby several chances to notice the signs and recognize language patterns.

You can use fingerspelling: Although it seems difficult, Deaf parents use fingerspelling, even with babies. Occasional short words can be the first step to learning about letters and can later help with learning to read.

CONCLUSION Hearing parents naturally communicate in ways that are as effective for Deaf babies as hearing babies. However, Deaf parents emphasize some strategies that are really helpful for Deaf and HoH babies. When hearing parents add these strategies, they give babies a strong start on language learning.