Baby sign language (or “baby signing”) is distinct from American Sign Language in that it is used by hearing parents with hearing children to improve communication, whereas American Sign Language is a natural language that is typically used in the Deaf community. Baby signing typically involves use of signs adopted from the sign language community but is more flexible in that the signs may be modified to make them easier for a child to make and does not require the child or parent to learn the grammar of a true sign language. The idea is for parents with hearing children to supplement spoken language with symbolic gestures, improving communication between parent and child and providing the child with the tools to express their wants and needs at an earlier age.
Research supports a number of benefits associated with early use of sign language with hearing children, including earlier mastery of verbal communication, enhanced cognitive and emotional development, enhanced academic performance, and improved parent-child bonding. There is also evidence that these benefits exist long after signing has ceased.
We have experienced, firsthand, the benefits of baby sign language through its use with our own children. Teaching our children to sign allowed us to effectively communicate with them at a very young age and to avoid a lot of frustration and crying that we may otherwise have experienced without these communication tools. But, don’t take our word for it!… Some of the scientific research is highlighted below:
Contrary to the concern of some parents that the use of sign language may delay the onset of verbal communication, multiple studies have shown that early use of sign language may actually facilitate, rather than hinder, the development of vocal language. In these studies, hearing children who were taught sign outperformed children who were given only verbal training. This performance gap was still observed years later, with children who were taught sign having more advanced verbal skills and exhibiting higher IQ’s than the children who were given verbal training only. (1)(2)(3)
Baby signing promotes enhanced cognitive development by allowing children to gain language skills through both visual and auditory modes. (4)
Baby signing promotes mutual attention between the parent and child, leading to better communication and closer bonding. (5)(6)
A vast body of research identifies language delays as a risk factor for the development of behavior problems and that sign training may contribute to the prevention of behavior problems for young children at risk (e.g., developmental delays, language delays, sensory impairment). (7)
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that “infant sign language really does deliver on its purpose of improved communication… It only makes sense that young children who lack the verbal skills necessary to say what they want, feel, or need experience frustration—especially in the period between 8 or 9 months (when babies start to really know what it is they want) and 18 to 24 months (when they typically start to speak their mind). In other words, if basic sign language can help babies use their hands to better express themselves at as early as 8 or 9 months, it can mean the bridging of this otherwise months-long communication gap.” (8)