Baby Sign Language 101

babies as young as six months old CAN communicate needs and desires 

The first few years of parenthood can be torturous. The midnight tantrums. The not knowing what is wrong. That sense of desperation one feels when they just can’t fathom what on earth their baby wants… The needs and wants of a newborn, though seemingly obvious, are in reality extremely difficult to discern – especially for someone living on a few hours’ sleep a night and experiencing an unprecedented number of feelings and emotions.


Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know exactly what your baby is thinking?


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Well, baby sign language – a form of manual signing that allows infants and toddlers to communicate emotions, desires and objects prior to spoken development – is premised on exactly this. It embraces the natural stage of infant development known as gesture to encourage a baby’s use of sign language, with the intention of creating richer parent-child communication. 


It is well worth noting that baby sign is completely different to the sign language used by those with hearing impairments, and that it is always taught in conjunction with speech so that a child’s ability to develop vocally is not affected at any stage of the process. Well, so they say. Essentially, baby sign is used to help parents interpret their pre-verbal baby’s needs and desires, in order to circumnavigate those difficult and often traumatising moments where parents find themselves at a loss as to what their child is trying to communicate to them.

 

The idea that babies can communicate to others well before they have developed verbal communication skills was investigated in depth by scientist Joseph Garcia in the late 1980s. By accident, he noticed that the hearing babies of signing deaf parents began to use signs long before their spoken language developed, and he sought to investigate. The research that followed proved his theory: hearing babies exposed to signing from six months onwards can express themselves through signs by their eighth or ninth month.

 

Since, the ‘baby sign’ movement has truly taken off, with health organisations, professionals and ‘Mums & Bubs’ groups worldwide now onboard with the idea. In the UK alone, there are countless baby sign groups offering hundreds of classes for parents hoping to connect with their babies while they are still wearing nappies.



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HOW DOES IT WORK?

 

Baby sign language allows babies as young as six months old to communicate needs and desires including hunger, being too hot or cold, thirst, boredom, sickness or joy. They can even ask for a hug. Awww.

 

Children typically begin to gesture, as well as use body language and eye gaze, between the ages of nine and twelve months without any encouragement from their caregiver or parents. Baby sign works with babies from the age of six months to two years to teach new ‘sign’ vocabulary through songs, focusing on different situations such as mealtime, playtime, bath time and bedtime.

 

The process is fairly simple.

 

Parents merely need to learn the sign language, then say the word as they sign it to their child. Then, they need simply repeat the word and the sign as often as they can during the relevant interaction, since babies need repetition in order to learn. At the age of six months, babies are usually able to express objects and concepts as “thirsty,” “milk,” “water,” “hungry,” “sleepy,” “pacifier,” “more,” “hot,” “cold,” “play,” “bath,” and “teddy bear.”

 

Research has found that it is even possible for babies to learn these signs by simply watching videos, however that study also found that babies who learned from their parents showed evidence of understanding what those signs actually meant.

 

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WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS AND ARE THERE ANY DISADVANTAGES?

 

There is huge debate over whether or not the baby sign program is actually effective – or whether the benefits see in such programs are merely the result of an increased level of communicative interaction between parent and child; a placebo effect, if you like. However over the years, various studies and research have shown that benefits indeed exist, and as yet, there is no evidence of baby sign programs harming a child’s development.

 

The perceived benefits of baby sign programs are very appealing: an increased parent-child bond, decreased frustration and improved self-esteem – for both the child and parent. Other potential benefits include a larger vocabulary, more advanced mental development, a reduction in problematic behaviours such as tantrums resulting from frustration and empowerment of the infant to focus. Oh, and did I mention that some studies have shown children who learn baby sign end up with a +12 point IQ advantage over their peers? Incredible, right? Apparently, teachers in young learner environments are able to identify which of their students learned baby sign from the moment they enter the classroom.

 

In the United Kingdom, the benefits of using signing with babies of lower income families was so well documented that it inspired a two-year pilot project where academics taught mothers of poor backgrounds how to use baby sign. That particular research study found that sign lessons only made a difference where children started out with poor language skills in a family where language skills were generally poor. The same study showed that middle-class parents tend to speak to their children more often and using a wider vocabulary.

 

You are likely thinking – but wait – won’t emphasising gesture-based communication mean my child’s verbal development is harmed? And the answer is this: research studies to date have all unequivocally found that baby sign neither benefits, nor harms, the language development of infants.  A study published by the National Institutes of Health in 2000 showed that a group of babies who were exposed to signs along with talking scored better on measures of language acquisition than children who were exposed to talking alone.

 

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SO, SHOULD I, OR SHOULDN’T I?

 

At the end of the day, it’s up to you how you choose to raise your child. You’re the parent. 


Faced with the tide of opinion and advice from government and health agencies, the media, friends and family, it’s no wonder new parents struggle to decide what is best for themselves and their children. If you truly want to try bridging the gap between the babbling ‘gagagaga’ baby phase and the time where your child begins to engage in more meaningful dialogue, then good on you. Embark on the journey knowing that, on the whole, the effects will no doubt be more positive than negative. For both you and your baby.

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