Using baby sign language with hearing infants and toddlers is a popular practice among parents, care takers, and teachers. “Baby sign language” is a collection of American Sign Language (ASL) signs that help little ones communicate common needs and expressions: milk, eat, more, please, mama, dada, hot, cold, etc. Infants and toddlers manipulate their hands long before their verbal skills develop. Many babies naturally communicate with their hands. For example pointing at an object or holding up their arms when they want to be held. Yet, is learning and using baby sign language worth a first time mom’s energy and effort? What are the specific benefits using baby sign language with babies and toddlers?
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1. Early Communication As I said, babies naturally use their hands to communicate. Baby sign language capitalizes on this common tendency and so opens the door of communication earlier for many babies. Proponents of signing with babies say that when a baby is signed to from birth they may be able to start signing as early as six months of age. Personally I have not seen a baby signing that young, but I do have a friend whose child signed around 7 months. What I have witnessed among my mom friends who consistently sign with their children is that their little ones have more communication tools early on than babies who are not exposed to signing. Additionally baby sign language becoming more universally practiced among care takers so babies who sign can potentially communicate with people outside of their immediate family. (Note, when selecting baby sign language resources be sure to find ones that specifically use ASL signs.)
2. Encouraged Communication & Socialization The practice of using baby sign language encourages both producing and perceiving communication. Parents who sign with their babies are more in tune with their little ones’ needs and feelings. In her article, “Baby Sign Language: An Evidence-Based Guide”, Dr. Gwen Dewar describes a 2012 study by Dr. Elizabeth Kirk of University of Hertfordshire’s Department of Psychology. In the study a two groups of mothers and children were compared. One group used baby sign language while speaking with their babies while the other group did not. Both groups of babies and mothers were tracked from 8 to 20 months. While there was no difference between the babies’ language acquisition and development, the mothers who signed with their babies were more responsive to their children’s nonverbal communication. Baby sign language clearly encourages communication and so benefits the relationship between caretaker and baby.
3. Layers of Communication Baby sign language is by nature interactive, which not only encourages communication and also benefits brain development. For baby sign language to be successful, one must practice maintaining eye contact, speaking, and signing simultaneously while communicating. Thus parents who use baby sign language are communicating with their children on multiple levels: visual, physical, and verbal. In turn when babies use signs they use several areas of the brain. Dr. Marilyn Daniels, Penn State researcher and author of Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy, explains that, “Sign language has the unique capacity to tap into the natural exchange between hand and brain, optimizing the emergence of language in the child because of the physiological advantage of American Sign Language (ASL) over English.” Baby sign language teaches children words using multiple modes of learning which I believe reinforces the concepts and benefits the learner.
Personal Experience My husband and I started using some basic signs like “more” and “milk” with my son, nicknamed Triple A, when he was around four months old. While it was a long time before Triple A signed or spoke, he did seem to enjoy the interaction of us signing to him. Triple A said his first word, “mama,” when he was around 9 months old. At ten months he signed his first sign, “more.” With this and all other signs to follow, speaking the word and signing it emerged at the same time. I know from other moms that babies often sign a word before speaking, but Triple A was different. Just proves that every child is unique.
Baby sign language indeed has many benefits and is definitely worthy of a first time mom’s energy and effort. Be sure to seek out quality resources, specifically ones that use ASL signs. One such resource is Mimi Vance’s book series Words by the Handful. Stay tuned for a review and giveaway on this wonderful series.
Baby Sign Language: An Evidence-Based Guide by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. http://www.parentingscience.com/baby-sign-language.html
Sign Language Enriches Learning For Hearing Children by Vicki Fong http://www.psu.edu/ur/2001/signlanguage.html