I’m on a plane reading the airline’s March 2016 magazine. On page 82, there’s a picture of a mom practicing sign language with her son. Accompanying the picture is a half-page marketing story from Smart Coos, a new Orleans-based company with a goal to “become the trusted, go-to destination for all-things-language for children.” The company is providing services and tools to raise a child that speaks more than one language. The languages they’re offering are Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, English ─ and Interactive Baby Sign Language. They’re encouraging Sign Language for children too young to start early language classes.
This ad has piqued my interest in what appears to be the growing practice of teaching sign language to babies and young children. Three questions come to mind:
- What is baby and early child sign language?
- Is this a growing practice and where do you learn about this?
- What is the evidence behind this ─ are the claims to teach babies and young children sign language borne out by research?
What is baby and early child sign language? Wikipedia offers a good overview: : “Baby sign is the use of manual signing allowing infants and toddlers to communicate emotions, desires, and objects prior to language development. With guidance and encouragement, signing develops from a natural stage in infants’ development known as gesture. These gestures are taught in conjunction with speech to hearing children, and are not the same as a sign language. Some common benefits that have been found through the use of baby sign programs include an increased parent-child bond and communication, decreased frustration, and improved self-esteem for both the parent and child. However, along with positive results, researchers have found that baby sign neither benefits nor harms the language development of infants. Promotional products and ease of information access have increased the attention that baby sign receives, making it pertinent that caregivers become educated before making the decision to use baby sign.”
Is this a growing practice and where do you go to learn about this? To answer the last part of the question first, a Google search will identify a substantial marketplace of folks who can help you teach babies and young children sign language. Many are businesses; i.e., they sell services and tools to help parents and others teach signing to babies and young children. The services and tools include flashcards, games, instructional books, DVD’s, classes, workshops, and seminars. The cost of these services and tools is varied ─ and some are free. The target audience is parents but many reach out to school teachers and daycare centers as well. Most sites offer information on when (the age) you can expect to see babies/children signing back, examples (anecdotes) of children and parents engaged in signing, and evidence (research) for the benefits of early signing. Some sites offer a Frequently Asked Questions section, that includes questions on the potential “cons” of early signing ─ one of which is the concern that children might be unmotivated to move to verbal language if they’re already using signs to communicate. Generally, these sites debunk this as myth, indicating early signing may actually accelerate the development of verbal language.
A Google search will also identify several key leaders who have been studying baby signing and advocating for its expanding practice for decades. In the 1980s, an American Sign Language interpreter, Dr. Joseph Garcia, noticed that the children of his deaf friends were communicating with their parents at six months old using sign language and they had substantial vocabularies at nine months old. This was surprising to Garcia since most children don’t start saying their first few words until 12 months and still have a small vocabulary at two years. Garcia began using sign language to teach the children of hearing parents and later started his own company to teach baby sign language. Garcia is a leading expert in the baby sign language revolution. He has published three books: Toddler Talk (1994), SIGN with your BABY (1999), and Complete Guide To Baby Sign Language (© 2016.
Also in the 1980s, professors Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwin at the University of California-San Diego began to study baby sign language through a series of National Institute of Health grants. Over the next 20 years, Acredolo and Goodwyn conducted the first comprehensive baby sign language research. Through a series of studies, they showed several benefits including: less frustration and a closer bond; a larger speaking vocabulary; 12 IQ point advantage. They have also advocated for baby sign language as a mainstream practice and started a company to promote signing.
Through the 2000’s acceptance and use of baby sign language has continued to grow. In 2006, PBS began running the “Signing Time” series which spawned further awareness of the practice of baby sign language. Today, signing is used by millions of families and has become an integral part of the program in many early childcare centers. The American Academy of Pediatricians in its latest edition of its guide to infant care has also endorsed Baby Sign Language (Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality, 3rd edition) and the topic continues to gain attention.
What is the evidence behind this ─ are the claims to teach babies and young children sign language borne out by research? Despite the growing number of advocates for baby signing, there still appear to be questions about the evidence base behind the practice. Wikipedia explains that “Due to promotional products, easy access to baby sign tutorial videos, and representations in popular culture, parental attempts at signing with their baby may be more focused on the social fad instead of an intention to potentially enhance their child’s communication skills.” Wikipedia questions whether the information available on the Internet about baby signing is reliable and describes two research studies that shed light especially on the “evidence” questions:
- A 2012 study by Nelson, White, and Grewe identified 33 websites promoting baby signing and benefits associated with this practice. The researchers found that “over 90% of the information [at the websites] was referring to opinion articles or promotional products encouraging parents to sign, with little to no evidence of real research.” They concluded that “although the websites claim that using baby sign will reduce tantrums, increase infant’s self-esteem, satisfaction, feelings of accomplishment, increase parent-child bonding, and decrease frustration, the sites do not provide enough research-based evidence to support these claims.
- A 2014 study by Fitzpatrick, Thibert, Grandpierre, and Johnston evaluated websites to answer the question─“Does baby sign encourage developmental, social, cognitive, and language skills while achieving a greater bond between parent and child?” The researchers were asking this question to “allow parents, caregivers, childhood educators and clinicians to make informed decisions about the amount of emphasis to place on baby sign.” The study found 1747 articles at the many websites they examined, “with only 10 articles providing research regarding infant’s developmental outcome in connection to baby sign.” They concluded from these 10 articles that ‘baby sign as used by the commercially advertised product authored by [one of these sites] does not benefit language production or parent-child relationships; however, there was also no evidence from these articles that baby sign is in any way harmful to infants.’
An important take-away from these studies is that the many websites out there claiming “research-based information” may be more “opinion-based.” Therefore, folks “looking for information regarding the pros and cons of using baby sign should ensure they are accessing sites backed by research and not opinion.”
Bottom Line: Knowing that baby and early child signing is a growing practice but there may not be a solid evidence base behind this practice, what’s the bottom line? Whenever I see research findings like these (strong benefits have not been proven but there is no evidence that the practice is harmful), it seems like a “common sense” approach is in order. I especially like the answer given by Dr. Jay L. Hoecker at the Mayo Clinic website in response to the question, “Is baby sign language worthwhile?”
He indicates that “baby sign language—when babies use modified gestures from American Sign Language—can be an effective communication tool. Teaching and practicing baby sign language also can be fun and give you and your child an opportunity to bond.”
He notes that there is “limited research … that baby sign language might give a typically developing child a way to communicate several months earlier than those who only use vocal communication. This might help ease frustration between ages 8 months and 2 years — when children begin to know what they want, need and feel but don’t necessarily have the verbal skills to express themselves. Children who have developmental delays might benefit, too. Further research is needed, however, to determine if baby sign language promotes advanced language, literacy or cognition.”
He offers advice on the teaching of signing: “To begin teaching your child baby sign language, familiarize yourself with signs through books, websites or other sources. To get the most out of your baby sign language experience, Dr. Hoecker offers the following four tips ─ concluding that “as you teach baby sign language, it’s important to continue talking to your child. Spoken communication is an important part of your child’s speech development.”
- Set realistic expectations. Feel free to start signing with your child at any age — but remember that most children aren’t able to communicate with baby sign language until about age 8 months.
- Keep signs simple. Start with signs to describe routine requests, activities and objects in your child’s life — such as more, drink, eat, mother and father. Choose signs that are of most interest to your child. In addition to using formal signs, encourage meaningful gestures, such as pointing and the hand movements that accompany nursery rhymes.
- Make it interactive. Try holding your baby on your lap, with his or her back to your stomach. Embrace your baby’s arms and hands to make signs. Use signs while communicating with your baby. To give signs context, try signing while bathing, diapering, feeding or reading to your baby. Acknowledge and encourage your child when he or she uses gestures or signs to communicate.
- Stay patient. Don’t get discouraged if your child uses signs incorrectly or doesn’t start using them right away. The goal is improved communication and reduced frustration — not perfection. However, avoid accepting indiscriminate movements as signs.
 Wherever there is underlining in quotes in this blog, these are mine and added for emphasis.
 Examples: http://www.babysignlanguage.com; ; http://www.signbabies.com/; http://www.start-american-sign-language.com/image-files/xlogo2.png.pagespeed.ic.8MZ5pSW-dn.png; https://prezi.com/7_jf4qnn2bum/baby-sign-language/