Should parents use baby sign language?

Baby sign language—a specialized sign language used to communicate with preverbal infants and toddlers—has become increasingly popular over the last few decades. It is intended to help very young children to express their needs and wishes earlier than they could otherwise. Baby signing experts believe that frustration and tantrums can be avoided by closing the gap between desire to communicate and the ability to do so.

Infants from about six months of age can begin to learn the basic signs, which cover such objects and concepts as “thirsty,” “milk,” “water,” “hungry,” “sleepy,” “pacifier,” “more,” “hot,” “cold,” “play,” “bath,” and “teddy bear.”

Joseph Garcia, an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, conducted research which showed that babies who are exposed to signs “regularly and consistently” at six to seven months of age can begin to use the signs effectively by their eighth or ninth month.

In addition to ASL, there is an established system of signing called makaton. It comprises “key word” manual signs and gestures which are commonly used with children and adults who have communication, language or learning difficulties. Makaton is a communication aid, not a language, whereas ASL is a language with its own grammar and is used fluently by deaf people. But using signs is likely to be beneficial no matter what method you choose.

The ability to sign basic words could prove helpful in boosting communication and providing a “bridge to the spoken word.” It may also facilitate the acquisition of verbal and written forms of communication later on.

Infants who learn baby sign language also are thought to gain psychological benefits, such as improved confidence and self-esteem. Feelings of anger due to an inability to communicate may not occur as often. Having the ability to sign could be a lifesaver when a child is too distraught to speak clearly.

Parents say that signing is rewarding and aids bonding because of the need to make more eye-to-eye and tactile contact. Also, as children age, it may be easier and perhaps kinder to reprimand the child in public using sign language, saying “no” for example, and equally can become a way of giving praise privately.

It has been suggested that learning sign language can delay speech, but this is refuted by experts who claim that in fact, it aids speech development. Most baby signers speak earlier than babies who do not learn sign language.

Psychologist Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon of the University of Stirling, UK, recently reviewed the research on baby signing. She writes, “Communication is at the heart of child development, be it cognitive, social, emotional or behavioral.”

The association between communicative difficulties and behavioral problems such as shyness is well-documented, she states. But “there is a dearth of actual research” on baby signing. What little there is, however, confirms that signing boosts the infant’s vocabulary and mental development, reduces tantrums and improves parent-child relationships.

From the parents’ point of view, baby signing could bring many advantages. It helps reduce the guesswork of understanding your infant’s thoughts, as well as allowing two-way conversations. Parents may develop a better understanding of the child’s personality. It also could save much time and frustration.

Finally, teaching an infant baby sign language can be a fun process in itself. Infants enjoy learning and games, eagerly soaking up more and more signs. It creates playful interaction and a chance to glow with pride in your child’s abilities.

Tips on teaching baby sign language

  • Begin demonstrating when the infant is between six and eight months old, when they can hold your gaze for a couple of seconds.
  • Start with three to five signs, using eye contact and saying the word out loud. Try signs which are easily linked to objects, such as “ball.”
  • Repeat the signs consistently on a regular basis. Suggest that other caregivers join in.
  • Notice when the infant begins to mimic the signs, usually after about two months, and add additional words when you begin to make progress.

It’s possible that infants will take the initiative and invent their own signs. If so, use these rather than the “official” sign. It doesn’t really matter what the sign is, as long as you agree on its meaning.

The child may be resistant at first, or never show an interest in signing. Children are all different and it does not by any means indicate a problem. Occasionally the infant may understand and respond to the signs without ever trying to copy them.

Remember to enjoy it; you’re not formally “teaching” signs as such, just adding simple gestures to your normal speech.

There are many widely-available books and websites that give more information and demonstrate the signs, as well as local baby signing groups in many areas.