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Baby Signing:

Dennis Finlan


            The benefits of teaching every baby how to take advantage of signs in communication before they can actually speak can greatly enhance not only the bond a parent has with their child but research has shown that it will not only lead to early communication but it helps babies learn how to talk, it stimulates social development, and can help to improve self esteem. (Acredolo, 1992)

Research has shown that many tantrums come from being unable to effectively communicate what they are asking for and ultimately becoming frustrated.  This paper will talk about the benefits of teaching a baby sign language and why it can benefit every child and parent alike.  I will also advocate teaching signs to infant using ASL versus letting the parents make up their own signs for one reason, if all parents and children learn the same signs for the same words it not only will increase the use of the signs when children are trying to communicate with one another but will also enable children to communicate with other parents, teachers, babysitters, etc, and will lead to an easier transition from one setting to another for the child.

            In the mid 1980s there was research being done by two different groups, Joseph Garcia in one and Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn in the other.  In 1987, Garcia began to research the use of ASL with hearing babies from deaf or signing parents and found that babies who are exposed to signs regularly at 6-7 months of age can begin expressive communication by their 8-9 month.  Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr Susan Goodwyn conducted a study funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.  The study showed that signing babies understood more words, had larger vocabularies, increased interest in books, and engaged in more sophisticated play than non-signing babies.  Parents in the study also noted decreased frustration, increased communication and increased bonding with their child.  They revisited the families in the original study when the children were seven and eight years old. The children who signed as babies had a mean IQ of 114 compared to the non-signing control group's mean of 102 (Acredolo and Goodwyn, 2000).

            Both groups went on to develop a baby signing program with one major difference.  Joseph Garcia promotes the use of a standard sign language like ASL where as Acredolo and Goodwyn promote parents making up their own signs.

            One thing that is consistent in the research articles I reviewed was that most babies already incorporated their own signs in communication in order to try and convey a message to who they were talking too.  While the signs varied from child to child many of them were already trying to convey a message without speaking but rather with signs. 

            The one criticism I found of teaching babies to sign was that they would not have the motivation to learn to talk and subsequently they would learn to talk at a slower rate than those that did learn baby signs.  While that seemed to be the only voiced concern with baby signs not a single study that I found showed that this was in fact true.  In fact, some of the studies did show that the more signs a baby knew the faster that child learned to talk leading the researchers to conclude that the more interested in learning signs the baby was the more interested they were in learning to talk and subsequently learned to talk faster than the other children. (Acredolo, 1985)

            Learning to sign can help a child and parent to bond because once a child starts to learn to communicate then they can start a conversation with their parents just as easily as a parent can start a conversation with a child.  A child will be able to communicate more effectively what they are asking for which will lead to less frustration on the part of the parent and child.  I a friend who has a daughter that is now almost 3 years old and I didn't notice until I started to learn sign that even now, when she says daddy or mommy she also instinctively gives the sign for father and mother.  When I asked "where's your dad" she will say "that is my daddy" and she will point when she says ‘that' and will sign ‘father' when she says daddy and she does it every time.

            Learning to sign can also help to build a child's self esteem by giving them the necessary confidence that they can communicate effectively.  To use a real life example; some close friends of mine has a 10 month old daughter who they have been teaching signs too.  We were out to dinner last week, at Ernesto's, and she gave the sign for eat every time she wanted another bite.  She also had a couple small toys, a cat and a dog, and she would hand them too me and sign what they were while mumbling something unrecognizable.  Prior to this class I didn't know these signs and wouldn't have recognized this communication but the point for this story was that she was very well behaved in a hectic and loud environment.  She seemed to be very confident and was not shy in trying and communicating with me, someone who has only seen her 5 times.  At the end of the dinner she actually gave the ‘bed' sign indicating she was ready to go. 

            Most of the criticism surrounding Garcia's push to teach a common sign language like ASL versus having parents making up their own signs is that many infants don't have enough dexterity to shape their fingers in a way that allows them to make some of the ASL signs plus it is only something they will use for a short period of time.  Teaching them these signs helps to build the motor skills that are so important in the development of children.  But most importantly it allows the transition from caregivers, to babysitters, to teachers, to parents to playing with other children to be so much easier because they will all be using the same sign.  It will help to reduce the frustration that comes with not being understood plus it will enable the child to more effectively communicate with all sorts of people thus building their self esteem.

While there is some criticism of teaching infants to sign none of it seems to be backed up by any research I have found.  Looking at the benefits as identified by the research that I have found as well as based off of my own limited experience with children who have learned to sign as infants and those who have not, I believe that every parent should work on teaching signs to their children in order to communicate at an early age.  I believe that by teaching a common sign language like ASL you open up opportunities for children to actually talk to other children who also have learned the same signs as well as potentially communicate with other parents, babysitters, and teachers which will all help with socialization of children which is so important. 


Acredolo, Linda, PH.D., Goodwyn, Susan, PH.D. (1992). Baby Signs; How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk. Chicago, Illinois: Contemporary Books


Acredolo, Linda. PH.D., and Goodwyn, Susan, PH.D. (1985). Symbolic gesturing in language development. Human Development, 28, 40-49


Allen, Tania. (2004) Signing the way?. Speech & Language Therapy in Practice, pp 4-6


Garcia, Joseph. (1999). Sign with your Baby. Bellingham, WA: Stratton-Kehl Publications, Inc.


Goodwyn, Susan, PH.D., Acredolo, Linda, PH.D., Brown, Catherine. (2000). Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development. Human Science Press. Volume 81, pp 81-102.


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