A Good Start: Suggestions for Visual Conversations with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Babies and Toddlers
Section III: Help Babies See the Communication and Language That You Are Using
During the early months of life, babies spend a lot of their time watching the person communicating or playing with them. However, by 5 or 6 months of age, most babies begin to display a great interest in objects (Adamson & Chance, 1998). They want to explore objects and toys by looking at them and manipulating them. They spend more time looking at objects and less time looking directly at parents and other people who want to communicate with them.
This stage of development presents special challenges for persons communicating with babies who are deaf or hard of hearing. A hearing child can hear and understand language even when looking at an object instead of the speaker. But, this is usually not the case for a child who is deaf or has a significant hearing loss. A child with hearing loss will hear spoken language only partially, in a distorted way, or perhaps not at all. The child needs to see the message in order to understand it. Whether the message is signed or spoken, it is helpful for the child to be able to see the face and body of the person who is sending the message. The child can get information from mouth movements, facial expression, and body language in addition to information from sound or sign.
This communication strategy was observed in my research with deaf and hearing mothers and in several other research centers around the world (Harris & Mohay, 1997; Mohay, 2000; Waxman & Spencer, 1997; Spencer & Lederberg, 1997; Spencer, et. al, 1996). It is an effective way to help deaf and hard of hearing babies see messages directed to them. The strategy of moving your hands to sign or gesture on or near something that the baby is already looking at is especially useful with younger babies. My associates and I saw both hearing and deaf mothers use this strategy; however, deaf mothers used it more often. They did this frequently when babies were younger, but began to decrease it after the babies were about a year old. This strategy particularly nurtures early language development because babies can see communication about an object without having to look away from it.
Even so, babies whose mothers used sign language sometimes looked up at their mothers after they saw the sign near the objects. When this happened, mothers usually made the sign again. That way, the baby could gradually learn to switch visual attention from the object to the mother and then back to the object. Looking from object to mother and back to object gives the baby more opportunity to connect language (including longer utterances) with the object or activity of interest. However, this switching attention skill takes time to develop. Often it doesn't happen until after 13 months of age, sometimes later.
Another way to help a baby see communication while looking at an object is for the mother to move an object in front of the baby. This almost always gets the baby's attention. Then the mother can continue to move the object, bringing it up near her face. When the baby can see mother and object at the same time, mother can communicate about the object. Deaf mothers do this quite often, usually signing something about the object while the baby can see both it and the mother. This is most effective when a mother moves an object that she and the baby have been playing with together — or moves an object related to one the baby is playing with. That way, the mother can use language that is responsive to the baby's interest instead of changing the topic.
Pointing to or tapping directly on an object before saying or signing something about it shows the baby exactly what the mother's language means. Deaf mothers tap on objects very often before, and sometimes after, they sign something about the object. For example, one deaf mother and her baby were playing with a ball. The mother picked up the ball, held it near her face, and tapped on it quickly about five times. This got the baby's attention. The mother then signed "ball" three times and tapped on the ball several more times before handing it back to the baby.
Sometimes deaf mothers also tap or pat with a flat hand directly on their babies' shoulders, arms, or legs, to signal them to look up for communication. Although hearing people use this signal occasionally to get a person to look at them, it isn't often used by hearing mothers with their babies. But it is an important tool to use with deaf and hard of hearing babies. My research showed that babies whose mothers often used this signal learned to look up at their mothers on their own earlier than babies whose mothers rarely used this signal (Spencer, 2000). And babies whose mothers used this signal often exhibited better signed language skills at 18 months and at 2 years. (For families using signed language, babies of mothers who more often used signs also had better language skills by 2 years.)
In addition, the tapping signal seemed to help babies in oral language programs to learn to look at their mothers' faces for communication. Those babies who looked up more often developed oral language better than those who did not.
Parents need to know, though, that babies don't start out understanding the tapping signal. They have to learn that it means, "Look at me." To teach them this meaning, deaf mothers usually combine the tapping signal with other communication strategies during their children's early months. For example, I observed one mother tap on her baby's shoulder, but the baby didn't look up. The mother then rubbed gently on the baby's leg. When the baby still didn't look up, the mother moved an object in front of the baby and brought it near her own face. At the same time, she tapped on the baby's shoulder again. Combining all these strategies helped get the baby's attention. This baby learned the meaning of the tapping signal before she was 18 months old. At that age, she would look up at her mother quickly when her mother tapped lightly on her shoulder.
One of the best ways to ensure that a baby takes note of communication is to wait for the baby to look up, then quickly say or sign something to the baby (Spencer, Bodner-Johnson, & Gutfreund, 1992). This may require a lot of patience, because some babies will often not look up. But, when a mother communicates in an interesting and responsive way during the times that a baby does decide to look up, it is like giving the baby a reward: It encourages looking up in the future. Some deaf mothers seem especially skilled at using this strategy.