Baby Sign Language Can Help Your Child Communicate

Filed under: Development/Milestones: Babies, Research Reveals: Babies, Activities: Family Time, Development Health

A baby looks on during a sign language lesson. Credit: Janek Skarzynski, AFP / Getty Images

Most mothers will tell you they can read their baby's cries: A distressed wail sounds different than an angry sob or an annoyed whimper. But there are few who would deny that things would be so much easier if their little one could just say what he or she needs.
The proponents of baby signing say communication is just what their system allows. In baby signing, infants are introduced to nonverbal gestures that substitute for words. Each time adults say a particular word, they make the accompanying gesture. Experts say children as young as 7 months can learn to sign.

Parents sometimes worry that being able to communicate through signing will deter their children from speaking, but experts say that isn't the case.

"When a baby learns to crawl it doesn't mean it's less motivated to walk," says Linda Acredolo, cofounder of the Baby Signs program and psychology professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis. "The same is true for signing."

Acredolo was involved in a five-year study funded by the National Institutes for Health that showed signing can facilitate speech in babies.

"It definitely has a positive effect on verbal development, and research shows that it helps intellectual development as well," she says. "For a while, they'll combine the word and the sign, and that's helpful because sometimes the early word doesn't sound like anything that you know."

Babies can reap emotional rewards from signing, as well. Being able to sign means they can tell caregivers and parents when they're cold, hungry or tired, making them less likely to throw tantrums because they are misunderstood.

"It gives babies the power to communicate in very simple terms before they have the words, so it can really head off frustration," says Tova Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development.

A child's ability to make himself understood is particularly useful in a child care setting.

"When they can't say words they start scratching and hitting," Acredolo says. "Signing babies don't have to do that."

Signing also gives siblings a way to communicate with the youngest member of the family. But Klein warns against taking a child to signing classes.

"If it's done in context, it's lovely," she says. "If it becomes something else that's forced and being taught in some rigid way, it's going against what it's intended for."

But when taught organically, signing can be the most natural thing in the world, Acredolo says.

"We all teach our babies to wave bye-bye and nod for yes and shake their heads for no, and those are all signs," she says. "If they can learn three then why not more?"

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.