Should we teach our baby to sign?
August 25, 2012 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Should we teach our baby sign language?

Does it help or hurt with speech development? Can you point us to any science one way or the other? Did you teach your baby sign language? If so, any regrets? Any books/websites/techniques uou'd recommend?

She's seven months old now. I guess we're looking to minimize frustration and increase fun, but not at the risk of her future verbal skills.
posted by semacd to Education (25 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
We taught our baby sign language starting at about six months, and I felt great about doing so. I firmly believe he was less frustrated as a toddler because he could communicate with us prior to learning to talk. For what it's worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics appears to endorse baby sign language:
"Infant sign language really does deliver on its promise of improved communication. . . It's easy to see why so many parents swear by it, why child care centers include it in their infant and toddler classrooms, and why it has become so commonplace as an activity of daily learning." (AAP's Heading Home with Your Newborn, 2011, pp. 173-174. (from here)
We didn't even get very extensive with it - at most, I think we taught him "milk" (for nursing), "please," "more," and all "done/finished." We sort of tried "water" and "diaper" but those didn't seem to stick the way the others did.

My favorite resource was My Smart Hands, because each word has a video associated with it that features both an adult doing the sign, and a infant/toddler/child doing the sign. This was really helpful to me, because babies don't often do a sign perfectly and it's helpful to see what that might look like.

At two and a half, our toddler still does the sign for "please" while saying please, but that's the only sign that's stuck around this far.
posted by meggan at 12:33 PM on August 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine who was a kindergarten teacher taught his classes a basic vocabulary of signs and said that for whatever reason they paid much more attention when he asked everyone to quiet down via signing rather than verbally.
posted by XMLicious at 12:42 PM on August 25, 2012

The consensus among linguists who study childhood exposure (of hearing kids) to ASL is that likely your kid will start communicating earlier ... but it won't have any long-term effect on their language skills, positive or negative. Their peers will catch up to them after a few years.

That said, it may be beneficial emotionally or socially or whatnot during those few years, so why not? And if you keep it up - give her opportunities to continue to be exposed to ASL, hey, early language exposure is awesome for learning a second language.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 12:48 PM on August 25, 2012

We used Baby Signing Time videos, reinforced with use around the house. Our son spoke early, and remains advanced for his age in terms of verbal skills. He didn't have tantrums till age 3, something I do attribute to reduced frustration around communication.

We did have to invent a few signs that were simpler than the standard ASL, like for 'mom' and 'dad' and 'help'.

I like being able to communicate with him from across the room without shouting. In a crowded space, I can signal to him to wait for me, or to stop.

Another boon has been his number skills... we had a dedicated sign video just about counting. He became very adept at counting forwards and backward.

Downsides... just that he expected all people to understand his signs.
posted by xo at 12:48 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Last I looked a few years ago, most studies point to it not _hurting_ language development. The jury seems to be out as to whether it _helps_.

That said, we didn't bother teaching formal sign language so much as we just paid attention and reinforced the gestures and indications that were already being made by the kid.

So, I wouldn't necessarily suggest sticking to the formal, in the books, signing so much as figuring out which vocalization or motion your kid uses for something and repeating that.

(Of course, if you have your child in a preschool, you might want to use whatever system they prefer, so you are all on the same page)
posted by madajb at 12:48 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

We've used some baby signs with each of our three kids. For us, the big benefit has been that the kids seem less frustrated when they can communicate their wants and needs. We haven't used any videos, we just show them the signs and repeat the words. I think someone gave us a book when our first kid was born, but we lost it years ago. Signs like "more," "all done," and "milk" have been very useful.
posted by Area Man at 12:52 PM on August 25, 2012

The only signs we really focused on were for more, milk, water and "all done.". Just those four reduced frustration an amazing, amazing amount. We also watched the Signing Time videos, but that was mostly for fun.

Try it - you'll be amazed how much your kid can communicate with just a few signs.
posted by BlahLaLa at 12:59 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

We've been using sign with our kiddo. We've found that it eases a lot of frustration. He's 18 months and recently started speaking in earnest, but he has been signing for about sex or seven months. He's cautious about displaying new skills until he's practiced them a lot, and I think he was happy to be able to communicate in some way before he felt comfortable with spoken language.

It is like baby speech, though, in that they don't always do the signs the "right" way, but there's some fun in the interpretation.
posted by linettasky at 1:00 PM on August 25, 2012

A lot of my friends did baby sign, and they all loved doing it (a lot of them took a local class, so it's also a good way to meet other parents). We found that both of our babies (and our non-signing friends' babies) made themselves understood at about the same rate as our friends' babies learned to sign, through half-words and happy and sad squeals and normal baby body language. The one sign I thought was super-useful, since neither of my kids was good at expressing this with noises, was "more."

We did have one friend (just one!) whose daughter was so content with her baby signing that she just opted not to talk, but that sorted itself out by the time she was two and a half and she's hitting language developmental milestones just fine. I think that's pretty unusual, and my friend said her pediatrician wasn't really worried about it. (Her pede said it wasn't that much different from a second child who lets an older sibling do all their talking and talks late as a result. It's not usually a big deal.) My friend was TOTALLY worried about it, but it worked out.

It does make it easier for babies to communicate with other adults -- baby sign is so pervasive in my circles that even parents who don't do it know several of the most common signs. When my friend's 1-year-old signs "more" at me, I know he wants more cracker. Whereas a strange adult trying to decode my 1-year-old's "fooooood?" noise is going to have to do a bit more guessing. I think that's one reason it's so popular in day cares.

It's also, frankly, something you can do with your baby that your baby will think is fun and will participate in, which is a benefit not to be underestimated with a 7-month-old, as it can be hard to find fun things to do with little babies that are also interesting for parents. It will be a nice bonding and play activity for both of you, if you decide to do it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:11 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

My grandson was taught baby signs, and at the age of eight he's frighteningly verbal (and learning Chinese in school with no problem). I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by languagehat at 1:35 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it is more fun time with you interacting with your baby, go for it. Keep in mind that it might be a month or two before she starts doing many signs back to you.

FWIW, my daughter and I took a fun cheap Baby Signs class through our school district's Parents as Teachers program. Some churches have classes too.
posted by eelgrassman at 1:42 PM on August 25, 2012

The empirical evidence is mixed as to what it does.

However, the additional engagement with your kid can't hurt.

My kid's daycare used it and he did milk and more and not much else.

When he showed signs of a speech delay at at year and change the pediatrician suggested that we stop.
posted by k8t at 1:51 PM on August 25, 2012

My daughter's daycare taught some sign and it was cute to see her signing, but I regret them teaching her "more", as she never seemed to stop signing it afterward.
posted by waving at 1:57 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am not a parent, but I am an aunt and sometimes a babysitter. It's very useful for me when babies sign since I am not familiar enough with them to interpret their other cues.
posted by kamikazegopher at 2:41 PM on August 25, 2012

My niece (who has Down's) was taught to sign from very early in her life, until she was about to start kindergarten, with the same kind of results as mentioned above (less frustration with basic communication, etc.). Then her speech therapists recommended she stop, because it was interfering with her verbal development. Of course, she is an atypical child. YMMV.

If you use the Signing Time videos, be prepared for a possible dive deep into Rachel Coleman fandom as your kid gets older. She's a huge star among the signing ankle-biter/preschool set. Also, earworms. My god, the earworms. An evening at my neice's birthday party, and I'm singing about Potty Time! for the next three days.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:48 PM on August 25, 2012

My aunt and uncle taught both my (non hearing impaired) first cousins sign language when they were little and both of them turned out pretty awesome and articulate and whatnot. IIRC they initially started because my female first cousin had a minor speech impediment that made her really shy about talking in front of strangers.
posted by elizardbits at 3:03 PM on August 25, 2012

We did it with my son. He didn't really start picking them up until right at a year old, but once it clicked, he would get a few a day if I made the effort. It was so great for him to be able to communicate before he could physically form the words. Instead of yelling for food, he uses the more sign. When he's finished with his meal, he'd sign "all done" and as long as we acknowledged that and reacted appropriately, it saved us from many food throwing episodes. He's 22 months old and talking more and more each day, but still uses a few regularly. His favorite is "milk" when he's ready to nap or go to bed.

To teach him signs, I would google "[word I want to teach] sign language" and there are YouTube videos and lots of signing websites that will show you how to do the sign. I taught lots of them along side picture books, so we'd say "giraffe", sign giraffe and point to it in his book. Lots of repetition in the beginning, but they get it more quickly than you'd expect. I signed milk for months before he got it: I'd say milk, sign milk, show boob. It has seriously been one of the best choices I made for us as a family.
posted by chiababe at 3:31 PM on August 25, 2012

Baby sign language is not only EXTREMELY useful in reducing the amount of frustrated screeching that young babies can produce, it is also UNBELIEVABLY ADORABLE. Seriously. So cute.
posted by Aquifer at 6:03 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

You are already going to teach your baby signs. She will clap, wave hello and goodbye, etc. Adding a few more (and you really don't need many) isn't going to hurt. It won't be a second language, it will just be a way to ask for more peas without screaming.
posted by that's how you get ants at 6:57 PM on August 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

So before my (1st) kid was old enough to do signs, I got to see the difference in teaching your baby signs and not in two sets of my friends who has almost identically aged children, with not dissimilar temperments. See there is this age, where your kid knows what they want but they aren't able to speak yet, and this can be very frustrating for both of you as the kid tries to figure out a way to get what they want (say more food, or milk). In the kid that was learning sign language, I could see that while this was still a frustrating time, he was much calmer because he was able to use the limited signs you teach a baby to communicate and express that, no damnit he didn't want the food, he wants the ball! However, the kid that didn't know signs, was just frustrated and screaming all the time because he couldn't tell us what he wanted, even though he knew it. It was such a start difference in the overall happiness of the kid and the parents that I resolved at that moment to teach my kid signs when he got old enough. And it was incredibly helpful, especially when he decided to start potty training before he could actually say the word "potty" (or any of the related words), as he could tell us he needed to go with the sign instead. He was never great at it, but he got the basics, and even after he started talking, we were able to keep using the signs as prompts for him to do things, or for communicating across rooms, etc (even my husband and I would do it with each other) without having to shout or interrupt conversations. It has had no impact on the verbal skills of any of my friend's kids who have used it, and my son, in particular, is one of the clearest spoken and most verbal kids of his age group around.
posted by katers890 at 8:01 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

My fourth child, adopted as a young toddler, ended up having general speech delay due to a bunch of early stuff and multiple languages. We didn't know about baby signing then and in hindsight, I think it would have been so very very helpful. Little kids usually have a much bigger receptive vocabulary so they understand what's happening but can't communicate back as easily - super frustrating!

With our fifth, we are doing baby sign because we have a family history of late speakers and the thought of seeing the same frustration my son went through when we could teach her an alternative way to communicate - yay for Baby Signing Time! Tip: rip the DVDs and split them into individual clips.

I have friends with a partially-deaf daughter who have chosen not to teach signing because she's doing intensive speech therapy to speak with a hearing aid, but in general I think baby signing is great.
posted by viggorlijah at 1:39 AM on August 26, 2012

We used baby sign language with my first child, and it was pretty awesome. She used her signs to tell us that her bit of toast with the corner bitten off looked like a rooster, and one time the Grandparent's dog was wondering around with its toy tuck in its mouth, and she signed "Dog eat rooster" and that was great. One set of grandparents was convinced we were catastrophically delaying her verbal development by doing the signing, which was a bit of a downer and put me off doing it with the other kids. I think it's great fun but it is one more thing to have to defend.
posted by slightlybewildered at 2:27 AM on August 26, 2012

We used sign language with both our kids via Signing Time. The older has Down syndrome and was likely to be speech delayed, but not language delayed. At preschool age, she had a 400+ sign vocabulary. Our son used sign to a lesser degree. She depended on it, he doesn't.

Here's one way to look at using sign: ALL kids use sign: they point, they reach, they wave, and so on, many times out of frustration in trying to get their point across to the giants that follow them around. By using a standard sign language, you are trying to guide that and to get in on the game sooner.

At the ages of 9 and 5 respectively, they still sign from time to time. Alice usually signs at us when she's very emotional, especially angry. Stuart when he has food in his mouth or is in a "I don't want to talk to you" mood. I still sign to Alice when I think that she really needs to pay attention.

Here's a blog article I wrote up a few weeks back on it.
posted by plinth at 3:41 AM on August 26, 2012

I used a few invented signs -- as mentioned upthread, just a handful are a big help -- but it was only useful for a terrifically brief interval; I didn't get anywhere with it until a few months before 12mo, and after 12mo there was a big language explosion and if I said "Can you SAY, X?" I got a version of X I could recognise if not X. So the only negative from this perspective is that if you have an early talker it may feel like wasted time, but what little we had was fun.

I would recommend no books/DVDs/etc. Find a motion you think your baby can do easily and that you will recognise, and associate it with something; teach away. I think (?) the most useful one here was "water."
posted by kmennie at 4:23 AM on August 26, 2012

We did a bit of sign language with our son when he was about a year old (starting late, I guess, by most standards), and we found it really helpful. Like others have noted, we started with ones that were potentially most helpful in easing frustration---more, all done, drink---and with things he was already interested in: book, fish, fan, cat, etc. I used a combination of ASL signs and ones I made up ("fish" was kissy fish lips and not the swimming motion with the hands, for example).

He caught on pretty quickly, and soon started putting signs together on his own; his first sign sentence was "more book." He'd point out ceiling fans everywhere we went by using the sign. Though he never really had a large sign vocabulary, more out of our own laziness in teaching than his ability, it was enough to make many of his needs and interests known, and it was fun to talk with him that way. I was the full-time at-home parent at the time, too, so it helped with my stir-crazy feeling!

His spoken language seemed to really kick in at about 18 months, pretty typical. He's 3 now and extremely verbal, so no worries on that front. Even now when he's really excited about something and wants it to continue, he'll unconsciously sign "more" even as he's telling you about it or asking for it. Adorable. We did make sure to continue working with him on verbal language---reading out loud lots, naming things and narrating events as we did them, using the word every time we/he used the associated sign, etc.
posted by percolatrix at 6:48 AM on August 26, 2012

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