In the last few years, baby sign language has gained in popularity, joining music class and stroller fitness on the “must do” list for the first year. But while these classes o ffer similar benefits — bonding time and a chance to meet parents with similar interests — baby signing has an advantage: giving babies language earlier.
“People confuse speech and language,” says Laura Berg, founder of My Smart Hands, a baby sign language program, and author of The Baby Signing Bible. “Baby signing isn’t about us talking to them, it gives babies a language to talk to us. It minimizes the guessing game.”
Berg’s daughter, Fireese, began signing two-word sentences at 10 months old. “I was feeding her cereal, and she kept signing for ‘more.’ When I gave her more she threw them on the ground. She got mad and signed ‘more cheese.’ It was amazing that she could communicate this so clearly.”
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This type of frustration was a central reason why Karen Killam signed up for a sign language class with her then-three-and-a-half-month-old son, Jackson. “I hate the idea of him feeling upset because he can’t communicate his needs,” says Killam, a Toronto primary-grade teacher.
At the classes, a group of parents gather with babies, lay out play mats and sing songs while learning new signs with a theme each week. Though Jackson isn’t signing back yet, he calms down when he sees his parents give the signs for “milk” and “diaper.” Killam uses the sign for “all done” when she finishes putting him in the car seat. “He was getting upset when I buckled him in, but now he seems to settle, much to my relief!”
The ideal time to begin signing is between four to eight months, says Berg, though recognize your child won’t sign back until they have motor skills, usually between six to eight months. You don’t have to attend a group class — the web is full of American Sign Language sites, including videos. When starting out, introduce a few words — milk, mommy, daddy, more, eat — that are most common in your baby’s day. Repetition is key. Sign the word every time you say it, and you will have more chance of him signing it back.
Will using baby sign language delay speech? Absolutely not, says Toronto speech pathologist Lisa Altman Strubb. "There are no cons to baby sign language. In a language-rich home, you will name things you see and actions, creating pathways of learning into the brain. Sign language is another way to reinforce language development.” Once a child learns to say the word, they normally drop the sign; first words are often correlated with first signs, adds Berg.
Gwenyth Doher -Sneddon, a developmental psychologist from Northumbria University in the UK, has researched baby sign language extensively. Though the advantages of baby sign language are evident, she cautions parents not to see it as a magic wand.
“Communication is crucial to a child’s emotional development. What really matters, whether parents or caregivers use baby sign or not, is that children receive high-quality interaction and you are responsive to a baby’s attempts to communicate,” she says.
If you’re interested in baby signing, Berg encourages parents to have fun with it: Introduce words and concepts on daily walks and during storytime.
A version of this article appeared in our February 2013 issue with the headline "Sign Me Up," pp. 42.