Baby sign? What’s the story? Should you be teaching your baby signs? Are you depriving your child of a boost to their development by not going to signing classes or at least watching some videos on Youtube? Full disclosure here: I’m not a fan of baby sign. Babies are born wired to communicate and acquire language. Signing just isn’t part of that development for typically developing babies. Sign language for hearing babies of deaf parents or deaf babies? Of course! Sign language is one of their languages. For hearing babies of deaf parents, the research shows that they’re exposed to a high frequency of signing in their language environment. As well as acquiring sign language, they also acquire spoken language earlier than usual ages and stages norms. But they’re acquiring languages not signing systems.
What about augmentative communication such as Lámh for children with learning disabilities to encourage communication? Absolutely. But Lámh is not a sign language like Irish Sign Language for instance. And its aim is to facilitate communication. (You can read more about it here.)
Baby signing for boosting vocabulary, reading, intelligence, and language development? I’m sceptical. BUT I realised that my opposition to it was based on my experience as a speech and language therapist, lecturer, and a parent. But maybe I’m totally wrong here. So I decided to look at the research and see what it says.
First of all it’s important to distinguish between baby sign and natural gesture. What’s the difference and why does it matter?
For this post, I’m talking about signs which have been taken from sign languages which are actual languages like English is a language or French is a language. (There are about 5-600 known sign languages across the globe). In baby signing classes, babies are taught key word signing that they can use to communicate before they can speak using words. (They are making sounds from birth and babbling too before 1st words appear.)
Natural gesture on the other hand means things like pointing, reaching, grasping which are the first gestures that infants produce, usually at around 10 months of age. From a communication point of view these gestures function like statements: I want that. There’s a toy. They also function like commands: Give me the spoon for example. These kinds of gestures foretell advances in language development and the development of gesture is linked to language development in the research.
At the end of their first year, symbolic gesturing begins to appear. This is where infants do things like hand movements that take on the form or function of the items like pretending to drink from a cup. Usually, they start using these gestures with the actual object in their hand and then gradually they do them in the absence of the actual object. Like hands together under one tilted cheek to indicate sleep or feeling tired. First symbolic gestures are similar in content to their first words. These gestures tend to function as labels. Their spontaneous use of them varies according to their exposure to them. An Italian study found that Italian infants who tend to be raised in a gesture-rich environment produced more symbolic gestures than American infants who did more of the pointing, reaching, grasping type-gesture (technically called deictic (dike-tick) gestures). Did the greater number of signs impact the Italian infants’ language development? No- when they had a gesture, they tended to use that and not the word. And their spoken vocabulary was significantly smaller that the American children. When gestures and words were combined in the analysis that difference disappeared.
Basically, there’s a lot of controversy about baby signing– mainly about the lack of hard evidence that it is baby signing that’s actually responsible for advances in speech, language, literacy, and IQ. Claims have also been made about its positive impact on self-esteem and feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. Heady claims for any parent to resist!
Research into the effect of baby signing on children’s development is still in its infancy and many of the studies are quite old. One 2005 Canadian study did a systematic review of the research and found 1208 published articles about sign between 1980 & 2003. They narrowed the review to 17 studies that fit their search criteria. They concluded that most of the 17 studies had serious problems with how the studies were conducted and that taken all together, they found little evidence that baby sign is ‘beneficial, harmful, or harmless’ (Johnson et al 2005: 245).
A more recent American study reviewed the evidence cited in 33 baby signing websites. They found that over 90% of the evidence used to support the use of baby sign consisted of opinion articles and product descriptions. Those reviewers (Nelson and colleagues in the list below) concluded that there simply wasn’t enough high quality evidence to draw research-based conclusions about whether baby sign actually facilitates child development.
I also read an article published by the American Speech-Language & Hearing Association (ASHA) written by a speech-language pathologist (Brenda Seal) who is a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington- the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students. She reports on a 2009 international conference in France, concluding that the children of middle class parents who were high performing were just as likely to show benefit with any gestural intervention. Interestingly, one paper presented at the conference found that bilingual babies reduced their talk time when signing was used. She also raises important issues about the accuracy of the signs- for example there’s an accuracy issue if you’re teaching your baby the sign while face to face. I have great trouble imitating in this way- I need to be behind the person modelling so that I get it right and it’s a similar issue for babies. The chosen signs also need to be developmentally appropriate to the child’s motor development so there’s a lot of theory behind the selection of signs. Ultimately, she concludes that there’s very little empirical support for baby sign as a way to advance language, literacy, and intelligence. There isn’t enough research either to disentangle the signing from changes in the way parents interact verbally and non-verbally while signing. Basically, it hasn’t been shown yet that it’s the signing that’s responsible for any improvements in children’s development.
Brenda Seal has another paper from 2014 which investigated the vocabulary development of 8 infants exposed to baby sign between 9 & 18 months of age compared with 8 babies who had not been exposed to baby sign. The differences between the groups were not statistically significant. The results confirm previous research about the tight connection between gestural and vocal development. She calls for ‘temperance in claiming that baby signing facilitates early word learning and cautions against claims that baby signing interferes with word learning’ (Seal and DePaolis, 2014:445).
A UK study in 2012 attempted to address some of the weaknesses in previous studies. This study (Kirk and colleagues in the list below) is considered the first high quality longitudinal study to explore the impact of baby signing on child language development and mother-child interactions. What did they do? They had four groups of parents; 40 mother-child pairs in total. One group received training in symbolic gesture like I described above, one group in British Sign Language, one in Verbal Training and one group who received no training (the control group). They started when the babies were 8 months old and trained the parents to teach the children 10 gestures/signs/verbal labels. They went back when the babies were 12 months old and introduced another 10 signs. They tested the children’s understanding of language and their expression before introducing the signs and after (at 12, 16, and 20 months). They found no significant differences between the gesture and control group at any stage in the study. They claimed that there was no support for previous claims of the benefits of baby sign on language development. They did find that baby sign training did significantly increase the expressive communication of boys who began the study with low language ability. They concluded that signing may benefit children with low language ability and may enrich the language environment by improving mothers’ responsiveness to their babies’ non-verbal cues. So, baby signing may be beneficial to babies who’re at risk of language delay or disorder. They also found subtle but significant changes in the ways mothers and babies interacted with their babies. Mothers in the SG and BSL group became more responsive to their children’s non-verbal cues and encouraged more independent action by their infants. However, only 20 signs were taught and minimal training was given to the mothers. There are other issues with how the study was conducted (for example the families were middle class, educated, and didn’t know the purpose of the study and weren’t motivated to sign) but then all research has limitations….
So then Mueller, Sepulveda and Rodriguez in 2014 carried out a study involving nine families in Texas from a predominantly bilingual Latino community made up mainly of low socio-economic status (SES) families. That’s important because there is research to suggest that children from low income families are spoken to less and may be less likely to be exposed to richer and more abundant vocabulary and longer more complex sentences. These children may be at risk for developmental and educational problems. The children ranged in age from 6 months to 2 years 5 months. Eleven children participated in the study. The families participated in a baby signing course to which they had been invited. So the parents wanted to learn to sign unlike the Kirk et al. study. The researchers wanted to explore the effects of the baby signing training on the children’s communicative, cognitive, social, adaptive behaviour and physical development. (Adaptive behaviour has to do with getting along in your environment with the greatest success and the least conflict with others. Please forgive me the simplistic definition here- I know it’s more complex that that!) They also wanted to improve on the 2013 study described above. They tested the children before and after a five weeks long baby sign course. Each workshop was 2 hours in length and took place once a week. Parents learned nearly 200 signs over the 5 weeks. And they learned ways to implement baby signs at home with their children. Their data suggested that the baby sign training had a significant, positive impact on the overall development of the children. They support the use of baby sign (Don’t get too excited yet- keep reading!).
The way they conducted the workshops was very different from the Kirk et al study in terms of the amount and intensity of the training and participants were motivated to sign with their children from the get go. A word of caution though: 11 children is a small number of participants and they didn’t have a control group who did not receive baby sign training. That means that makes it impossible to attribute the improvements in child development to the baby sign training alone. They could have just matured naturally over time. They conclude that a ‘clear pattern of the relationship between baby sign training and developmental progression is difficult to present’ (Mueller et al 2013: 1189). The two studies do have one finding in common: a significant increase in the language scores for those children who began the study with the weakest language ability.
One last study! This is from the UK and it looked at whether baby sign classes affected parents’ frustration and stress. There were 178 mother-infant pairs in the study divided into 2 groups: gesture and non-gesture. Gesturing mothers were found to have higher total stress scores despite having similar backgrounds to the non-gesturing mothers. They found no relationship between the frequency or duration of gesture use and stress scores i.e. baby sign training didn’t not reduce the mothers’ stress. The gesturing mothers were considered to have higher stress levels before the training which led them to baby sign classes because of the benefits claimed in promotional materials. They also suggest that attending the classes may raise mothers’ expectations about their children’s functioning. In turn, if the children don’t perform according to expectations raised by the promises of baby sign, this may negatively influence the mothers’ perceptions of their infants. A word of caution again- the numbers are small and not representative of all mothers and they didn’t take baseline measures of maternal stress before they had attended the classes.
So what’s the bottom line? Why should a child’s language development need intervention in the absence of an identified delay? At the moment- there’s no good reason to take your baby to baby sign classes. The current evidence suggests that for middle class families with time and resources, signing just isn’t necessary. So there’s no need to feel guilty if you didn’t sign up for classes. If you are going to signing classes, it’s good to know what the current research says so you’re making an informed decision. And of course your own experience may contradict the findings I reported here. There are other ways to enhance your child’s language environment and your interactions with them. And I’ll tell you all about them in my next post. So be sure to sign up for email updates if you haven’t already. I’ll also be posting about how to handle frustration in young children soon so keep an eye out for that too.
If you’d like even more resources to build your child’s language in fun, natural ways using what you already have around you, be sure and visit the Talk Nua Shop here.
Let’s get talking! MP
Here’s what I read so you won’t have to:
- Iverson, J., Capirci, O., Volterra, V., & Goldin Meadow, S. (2008). Learning to talk in a gesture-rich world. Early communication in Italian vs American children. First Language 28(2): 164-181.
- Johnston, J., Durieux-Smith, A., & and Bloom, K. (2005). Teaching gestural signs to infants to advance child development: A review of the evidence. First Language 25 (2): 235-251.
- Nelson, L., White, K., & Grewe, J. (2012). Evidence for website claims about the benefits of teaching sign language to infants and toddlers with normal hearing. Infant and Child Development 21: 474-502.
- Brenda Seal (2010) About Baby Signing. The ASHA Leader Volume 15 http://leader.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=2291803
- Seal, B. & De Paolis, R. (2014). Manual activity and onset of first words in babies exposed and not exposed to baby signing. Sign Language Studies 14(4):444-465.
- Kirk, E., Howlett, N., Pine, K. J., & Fletcher, B. C. (2012). To sign or not to sign? The impact of encouraging infants to gesture on infant language and maternal mind-mindedness. Child Development, 84(2), 574-590.
- Mueller, V., Sepulveda, A., & Rodriguez, S. (2014). The effects of baby sign training on child development. Early Child Development & Care 184 (*): 1178-1191.
- Howlett, N., Kirk, E., & Pine, K. J. (2011). Does ‘wanting the best’ create more stress? The link between baby sign classes and maternal anxiety. Infant and Child Development 20: 437-445.