Baby Sign - a good idea?

23 May 2017

The Cora Barclay Centre believes firmly in open and transparent conversations about our philosophies and beliefs. We know that our beliefs may not always be the same as others in hearing services, and that’s actually great. It gives families options and provides a space for every family to feel comfortable.

The reason we are mentioning this is that today we are going to talk about something that we get asked a lot about, but can be a little controversial; baby sign.

Before we go on, we want to make it clear that we are not talking about Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN) in this post. AUSLAN is a rich and complex language used by many people within the deaf community. Our focus is on baby sign, which is very different.

We hope that this post provides a useful insight into a topic that can be a difficult one on which to get an answer.

What is baby sign?

The concept of baby sign was developed in the 1990’s by Professors Acredolo and Goodwyn. The theory was that children could begin to communicate with their parents and caregivers in a meaningful way, prior to the development of speech. The signs used are similar to Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN) but are simplified to allow young children to be able to use them.

Research evidence

As an evidence–based services ourselves, we believe that before we decide on the efficacy of any program we should look at the evidence. So, what does the research say?

There have been many studies over the years in relation to baby sign, however in a systematic review of the literature Fitzpatrick, Thubert, Grandpierre & Johnston (2014)(*1) found that of 1,902 identified studies only 10 reports met the inclusion criteria for their systematic review, which suggests that there may be an issue with regard to the quality of the research available for consideration.

So, will baby sign help my child?

This question is, unfortunately, exceptionally hard to answer and will, of course depend on a number of factors. If you ask Google about the efficacy of baby sign you will probably be met with hundreds of claims and massive amounts of information.

As listening and spoken language practitioners we believe that children should first learn to communicate in their first language. So, for children with parents who are hearing this should be spoken communication in their primary language, regardless of the child’s level of hearing.

The main reasons that proponents of baby sign encourage participation are that it will accelerate a child’s language development, it will increase caregiver - child bonding and it will reduce frustration in the child.

So let’s have a look at these points.

Accelerated language learning

In a study by Kirk et al (2012)(*2) it was found that there was no evidence that baby sign helped accelerate children’s language development. The children in the study were able to learn and use the signs, but they did not learn the associated verbal words any faster, nor did they show improvement in their language development.

This makes sense since baby signs are not a complete language. For example instead of using spoken words where you would say, “Do you want some milk?”, but when you sign this you would simply use the sign for milk. Therefore lots of rich language has been omitted.

Secondly, baby signs language is iconic. That means that the sign is very intuitive of the meaning of the word. For example in this video for the baby signs for book, you can see the sign is very much related to how you use a book.

Spoken language is much more complicated. The word book has no bearing on the physical thing that is a book. Part of our role in language development is helping children understand the relationship between words and real world items.

Improved caregiver – child bonding? 

The same Kirk et al (2012)(*2) study did note that parents who introduced baby sign were more responsive to their children, which increased bonding. However, one could argue that this same level of bonding could occur through prolonged time undertaking any child focused activity. At the Centre we would recommend putting this extra time into reading and language development activities that have been shown to have long term benefits from children.

Child frustration

As parents we want to make sure that our children are happy, this is a natural reaction. Therefore the fact that baby sign could potentially remove the frustration of not being able to communicate can be very inviting. However, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention; the need to be understood can be a driver for language development.

Also, children will eventually work out their own way to communicate with their family, without many hours being spent on baby sign. Children will point to what they want, or guide a parent by the hand. Children are resourceful little people!

What if my child has a hearing loss?

If your child has a hearing loss then baby sign can have a much more significant impact.

Dr Susan Nittrouer looked at a cohort of children with hearing loss. For children with a hearing loss that was identified at less than 12 months of age there was no effect of using Baby Sign and no impact on their spoken language. However, for those children who had their hearing loss identified after 12 months of age there was a negative effect. When spoken language and sign were combined the spoken language suffered.(*3)

This actually makes perfect sense as children who are deaf or hearing impaired will, naturally, use a visual mode of communication if it is presented. Therefore if you want to assist your child in developing listening and spoken language it is best to stay away from any visual communication methods in critical years of learning listening and language. You can read why this is so important in our previous Early Intervention post. Choosing to divert into any other method of communication will take precious time away from working on listening and spoken language.

So, what do we recommend?

If your child is deaf or hearing impaired and is following a listening and spoken language path, then we recommend sticking to it and giving it your everything.

If your child has no hearing impairment, then baby sign probably won’t be detrimental. However, it takes prolonged, consistent use to have your child be able to use the signs. We would suggest, perhaps use that time to read and talk to your child, setting them up for a future of language.

If you have a child of is deaf or hearing impaired and would like to explore the options of having them learn to listen and speak, please contact us





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