Imagine a world in which your baby could simply tell you what she needs instead of forcing you to perform the “Want this?” dance into the wee hours of the morning. Thanks to the development of baby sign language, this scenario is not so far-fetched.
What is it?
Baby sign language is a method using hand shapes and motions to allow your baby to communicate before he can speak. Nancy Cadjan, author of Baby Signing 1,2,3 explains, “We all use language to understand what is said to us (receptive language) and to express ourselves (expressive language).” However, continues Cadjan, “we have some language before we have speech, meaning that before we can speak, we can communicate with others by using gestures, grunts and visual cues. This is the predicament that babies are in—they have things to express, but very few ways to express them.” That’s where baby sign language steps in.
ASL vs. invented gestures
Some forms of baby sign language strictly follow American Sign Language (ASL), while others may incorporate only parts of ASL or deviate from it completely. While parents have found that baby sign language can be effective in many different forms, it’s important for parents to understand that their baby is not learning a second language unless he is following an ASL-specific program.
Teaching your baby sign language can result in many positive outcomes for both parents and baby. Parents have reported that baby sign language:
• Reduces frustration in babies
• Strengthens the parent-child bond
• Stimulates intellectual growth, resulting in increased literacy and vocabulary skills and possibly a higher IQ
• Minimizes crying
• Reduces temper tantrums and may help curb the “terrible two’s” phase
• Increases the baby’s confidence and self-esteem
If using ASL, baby sign language also:
• Exposes your baby to a second language
• Enables your child to pick up second languages more easily later in life
• Allows your child to communicate with the deaf community
The most common concern parents have when deciding whether or not to teach their baby sign language is that doing so will hinder the baby’s desire to start speaking. Interestingly, studies have shown that the opposite is true. A study funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development showed that signing babies understood more words, had larger vocabularies and engaged in more sophisticated play than non-signing babies. Additionally, the study found that signing babies displayed an increased interest in books. When the conductors of the study revisited both the group of non-signing children and the group of signing children from the initial study, it was found that the mean IQ of the signing children’s group was higher than that of the non-signing children’s group.
Sounds great, when do I start?
To sharpen your own signing skills, you can start practicing signs well before birth and continue to use them as soon as your baby is born. However, experts say that babies usually do not develop the motor skills necessary to sign back until around six months of age. Like all other developmental skills, every baby is different, so be patient and just keep signing on your own until your baby is ready to sign back.