Baby Sign Language: Discover the science behind it 

Published : May 08, 2024
By Dr. Ana Aznar

How to teach your baby sign language: 10 most used baby signs 

Baby sign language is a set of hand gestures and movements (known as signs) used by parents and babies to refer to common words(1). It’s a tool to improve communication between parents and babies who can hear but cannot yet talk. Babies usually stop signing once they can speak.  

Some baby signs are the same as those in the American Sign Language (ASL) or the British Sign Language (BSL) whereas others are different. The ASL and the BSL are technical sign languages used by the deaf community with complex grammar and sentence structure. In contrast, baby sign language is a simpler version that uses hand gestures for specific words(2).  

Academics suggested that the use of baby sign language could be beneficial for families around 200 years ago. It was only in the 2000s that baby sign language became popular amongst families. 

Since then, books, video, classes, websites, apps, and programs have claimed that using baby sign language improves language development, cognitive development, parent-child bonding, and reduces tantrums, and frustrations(3).  

In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced that baby sign language helps parents and babies to communicate more effectively.  

However, despite these claims and endorsements there is little scientific evidence examining baby sign language. Let’s have a look at the research.  

Is it beneficial for babies to learn sign language? 

It is not clear. There are not many scientific studies examining sign language and the quality of the ones we have is not great(4).  

Some studies found that using sign language is good for children whereas others find no benefits. Even the studies that found that signing helps babies develop their language skills, concluded that these benefits disappeared by the time children turned three(5).  This means that even if signing improves language development, the benefit is short-term only. 

With the evidence that we have so far, we cannot conclude that baby sign language helps promote language development, cognitive skills, or literacy.  Nor we can conclude that it helps improve parent-child interactions nor parents’ responsiveness towards their children(6).  

Does it harm to use baby sign language?  

No. There is no evidence suggesting that baby sign interferes with child development.  

You may have heard that signing may delay language development and verbal communication, but it doesn’t look like it.  

I want to give it a go: When and how do I start? 

  • Start early but know that it will take time for your baby to start signing: A good moment to start teaching your baby sign language is between the ages of four to six months. Your baby won’t be able to make the signs until they are least nine months or a little later. Remember that every baby is different, so don’t despair if other babies around you seem to be learning at a faster pace.  

  • Similarly, to what happens when they learn to speak, at the beginning your baby will understand much more than they can sign.  

  • Start with a few signs only. Once your baby has learned them, slowly introduce more. Stick to those initial signs even if your baby doesn’t seem to be learning it. Don’t be tempted to try other signs. Once they have learned 4 o 5 signs, you can introduce another 4 or 5.  

  • Focus on teaching practical, everyday signs. The AAP recommends parents to focus on signs for the things your baby sees, wants, or does most often.  

  • Make it fun, use rewards and praise. 

  • Always pair signs with spoken language. Start by saying the word (for example ‘mama’), while making ‘mama’ in sign language, and pointing to her.  

  • Do the signs in context. For example, sign the word ‘milk’ before, during, and after feeding.  

  • Repetition and consistency are key. Sign every time you say the word, at the same that you say the word.  

  • Involve family members. The more your baby sees the signs, the better they will learn them.  

  • You may learn the signs by reading books, signing up to apps or websites, or you can attend a baby sign class.  

Baby sign chart: The 10 most useful signs  

Is baby sign language the same as Makaton? 

Both baby sign language and Makaton use signs and gestures to help communication but they serve different communities. Makaton is used by hearing people with learning or communication difficulties. Baby sign language is used by hearing parents and their pre-verbal hearing infants.  

What is the take-home message?  

It is not clear that sign language helps children’s development in any way. At the same time, there is no evidence suggesting that it is negative for children.  

However, given that there is a big market for it, beware of companies and professionals that may be over-selling the benefits of baby sign. Some websites make false claims about the benefits of baby signing, whereas others provide a false overview of the research by only citing the studies that support their commercial interests.  

There is no evidence that teaching your baby to sign will raise dramatically their IQ or that they will get top grades at school. If you find that it’s a fun thing to do with your baby and it helps you to communicate with them, go for it! If you don’t see the point, or it’s another thing to add to your to do list, you can happily forget about it.   

Finally, remember an important message: If you try and fail to sign with your baby, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with them. Maybe and simply, they are just not into it.  

I hope this information is useful. If you have any questions or comments, drop me an email or leave us a comment below. What is experience using baby sign language? Do you recommend it?

Much love,

Ana

Dr Ana Aznar

Reference list

(1)Mueller, V., Sepulveda, A., & Rodriguez, S. (2014). The effects of baby sign training on child development. Early Child Development and Care, 184(8), 1178-1191. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2013.854780  

(2)Howard, L. E., & Doherty-Sneddon, G. (2014). How HANDy are baby signs? A commentary on a systematic review of the impact of gestural communication on typically developing, hearing infants under the age of 36 months. First Language, 34(6), 510-515. https://doi.org/10.1177/0142723714561342 

(3)Nelson, L. H., White, K. R., & Grewe, J. (2012). Evidence for website claims about the benefits of teaching sign language to infants and toddlers with normal hearing. Infant and Child Development, 21(5), 474-502. 

(4)Doherty-Sneddon, G. (2008). The great baby signing debate: Academia meets public interest. The Psychologist, 21(4), 300-303. 

(5)Goodwyn, S.W., Acredolo, L.P. & Brown, C.A. Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior24, 81–103 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1006653828895 

(6) Fitzpatrick, E. M., Thibert, J., Grandpierre, V., & Johnston, J. C. (2014). How HANDy are baby signs? A systematic review of the impact of gestural communication on typically developing, hearing infants under the age of 36 months. First Language, 34(6), 486-509. https://doi.org/10.1177/0142723714562864 

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Comments
xSpEtKBCLfXAkDGz
2024-05-25 10:30:15
TUHkvaDFqPh
kqeNQJSn
2024-05-25 10:29:27
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Dr. Ana Aznar
2024-05-17 09:55:58
Hi Donna,
sO great to have you here! Totally agree that Zara is great! What other topics would you like us to discuss?
Ana
Donna
2024-05-17 09:49:36
Love Zara’s ways of teaching for both parents & kids! Also so helpful. We want more!! (Please!) :D
Ana Aznar
2024-05-08 07:24:31
We are glad you found the content useful! Many thanks for being here.
Ana
https://WWW.Waste-Ndc.pro/community/profile/tressa79906983/
2024-05-04 14:40:38
I couldn't resist commenting. Very well written! https://WWW.Waste-Ndc.pro/community/profile/tressa79906983/
Cristoj
2024-04-09 18:20:19
Great article!!!

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