I’ve shared more informal posts about the why signing with babies is so effective and what I love the most about signing with babies, however, I’ve had multiple requests for a more formal summary of what the research on baby sign language shows. In response to that request, I’m pleased to share the following summary…
Babies begin communicating from the moment they are born – using cries, coos & grunts to make their needs and desires known. As their bodies and minds develop, their communication evolves to include eye gaze and even pointing at objects that interest them.
Whether or not they are exposed to sign language, all babies communicate through non-verbal gestures. Most will wave, point, and even lift their arms to be picked up. Babies do this because their receptive language (what they understand) develops months ahead of their expressive language (what they can communicate). How does sign language fit in? Using sign language with your baby simply builds on this natural expressive ability.
Baby sign language is the practice of using this natural ability to communicate using gestures to facilitate quality communication before a baby’s ability to speak has developed.
How Signing Affects Language Development
A question that often comes up when discussing using sign language to communicate with an infant is “how will signing affect my baby’s speech development?”
Let’s take a look at the evidence: in research studies on using sign language with babies, none have shown that using signing causes a delay in language development. In fact, the overwhelming majority of research shows that signing has many positive short-term and long-term effects.
While there have been many studies done on this topic, the most influential research was conducted in the 1980s by researchers at University of California, by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. This study was funded by the National Institute of Health and it was inspired by Dr. Acredolo’s personal experience with her own baby…
Dr. Acredolo noticed her infant daughter “blowing” at the fish in the aquarium at the pediatrician’s office. Later in the day, when putting her daughter down for a nap, Dr. Acredolo ‘activated’ the fish mobile above her daughter’s crib by blowing on it to make it spin. Realizing her baby was communicating the concept ‘fish’ by making blowing gestures, Dr. Acredolo (along with Dr. Goodwyn) went on to conduct one of the largest research projects on infants and pre-verbal communication.
The result of the National Institute of Health research project were nothing short of amazing! The researchers compared a group of 11 month old infants who were exposed to signs and gestures to a control group of 11 month old infants who were exposed only to speech only. Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn found the following:
By aged 2, the group of signing babies:
- Had larger vocabularies
- Understood more words
- Had stronger language skills overall, and
- Used longer sentences
How Signing Affects Cognitive Development
Drs. Acredolo and Goodwyn followed up with the infants in their original study when the children were age 8 and found that the children who were signed to as infants had, on average, IQs that were 12 points higher than their non-signing peers.
Other notable research by Dr. Marilyn Daniels studied the impact of using sign language in the early childhood classroom (preschool and kindergarten). Her research focused on how signing affects literacy in hearing children. Her research found that young students in classrooms that incorporated signing into the lesson had many positive effects on young learners and that students in signing classrooms scored significantly higher on vocabulary test than the students in the typical classrooms.
Students in the signing classrooms
- Had better letter and sound recognition
- Were better spellers with larger vocabularies
- Had higher reading levels
Dr. Daniels concluded that signing had a positive impact on test scores and literacy skills because it accommodates multiple learning styles including auditory, visual & kinesthetic learning.
How Signing Affects Social & Emotional Development
Most child development experts will cite that frustration is the main cause of toddler tantrums and meltdown. Often this frustration stems from an inability to communicate and be understood. Using signing to facilitate communication during this challenging time can have an incredible impact on both infants and caregivers.
Some research has been done to study how signing impacts the parent-child relationship. Findings suggest that babies who sign receive better language feedback from their caregivers. For example, a baby who points at a new object might initiate a discussion about the object of interest with their mother.
Studies also suggest that parents who use signs with their babies experience less stress and frustration, and are more affectionate with their babies. Research also has shown that signing babies are more engaged and connected with their parents and initiate interaction more often.
From an evidence-based perspective, the body of research supporting sign language use with infants and toddlers is compelling. The number of studies itself demonstrate the interest and awareness of this enriching way of communicating with babies. In the course of research, popular doubts and concerns such as delayed speech from signing have been effectively debunked. Most importantly, the research helps to validate the curiosity and desire parents have to start communicating with their little ones much sooner than “mama” or “dada” is first uttered.
Research Summary of Benefits of Signing with Babies:
- Reduced frustration
- Improved communication
- Enhanced self-esteem
- Expanded spoken vocabulary
- Increased interest in books
- Higher IQ
“Infant sign language really does deliver on its promise of improved communication.”
– The American Academy of Pediatrics
Acredolo, LP and Goodwyn SW. 1988. Symbolic gesturing in normal infants. Child Development 59: 450-466.
Acredolo, Linda P., and Goodwyn, Susan W., The Longterm Impact of Symbolic Gesturing During Infancy on IQ at Age 8, International Conference on Infant Studies (July 18, 2000: Brighton, UK).
Daniels, Marilyn, Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy. Bergin & Garvey, October 2000.
Daniels, M. (1994). The Effects of Sign Language on Hearing Children’s Language Development. Communication Education, October, v43 n4, p291 (8).
Daniels, M. (1996). Seeing Language: The Effect Over Time of Sign Language on Vocabulary Development in Early Childhood Education. Child Study Journal, 26, 193-208.
Gongora, X. and C. Farkas, Infant sign language program effects on synchronic mother-infant interactions. Infant Behavior & Development, 2009. 32: p. 216-225.
Goodwyn, S., L. Acredolo, and A.L. Brown, Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior, 2000. 24(2): p. 81-103.
Iverson JM and Goldin-Meadow S. 2005. Gesture paves the way for language development. Psychological Science 16(5): 367-371.
Claire D. Vallotton, Catherine C. Ayoub, Symbols Build Communication and Thought: The Role of Gestures and Words in the Development of Engagement Skills and Social-Emotional Concepts During Toddlerhood, Social Development 19:3,601-626 (August 2010)
Vallotton, C., Infant signs as Intervention? Promoting symbolic gestures for preverbal children in low-income families supports responsive parent-child relationships. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Volume 27, Issue 3.
Which Signs Should You Start With?
Deciding which signs to start with is one of the first big questions parents face when beginning with baby sign language.
To make things super simple, I’ve put together this collection of 9 videos of my absolute favorite starter signs and created a totally FREE printable chart to go with it. Download the free chart below and print it out as a visual reminder of which signs you’re using and how to do them!
How to sign ALL DONE in American Sign Language. Oh the possibilities for this one are endless! Use this one whenever you are transitioning from one activity to another and your baby will get the idea. You can sign “all done” when you’re taking your baby out of the carrier, high chair, bath, car seat, you name it.
You can sign & say this at the end of a feeding or when you finish a book. You can use this sign along with the words “all done,” “finished,” and even “the end.” Once your baby starts signing this one back to you, it’s really helpful that they can let you know when they’ve had enough BEFORE the tears come.
How to sign BALL in American Sign Language. Curve all your fingers (this is called a “claw” handshape in ASL) and bring your hands together to show the shape of a ball. Pro tip: You can do this sign with a ball in your hands if it’s small enough. This is a great technique to show your baby the sign, because their eyes will be on the ball…AND your hands!
How to sign BATH in American Sign Language. Sign bath to your baby as you’re getting ready for bath time and during the bath. You can also use this sign when you see someone taking a bath in a book you’re reading. You can sign this one on your body or right on your baby’s body (if they don’t mind).
How to sign BED in American Sign Language. This one is super easy and babies can learn it really quickly. Ask your baby “do you want to go to bed?” when you suspect they’re getting sleepy.
How to sign DOG in American Sign Language. This is definitely not my best video because you can’t see my hand – sorry! But this is a super easy sign – just pat your thigh with your hand like you are calling a dog to come to you. Easy peasy.
There are 3 ways to sign dog in ASL. 1) Pat your thigh 2) Snap your fingers or 3) Do a combo of the pat & snap. I prefer keeping it simple by patting your leg. You can even pat your baby’s thigh to teach them this sign, just to give them the idea.
How to sign EAT in American Sign Language. The sign for “eat” is the same as the sign for “food” in ASL. I recommend introducing this sign when your baby starts eating solid foods. Use it every time your baby has something to eat and remember your baby’s sign might not look much like yours! They’ll do their best by either touching their mouth (or maybe even their ear, like my first did!). You don’t need to correct them, just keep doing it the right way and they’ll copy you to the best of their ability.
Download the Free Baby Sign Language Chart!
From Milk to Fireworks—Yael’s Baby Sign Language Story
Rowan is a 13-month old firecracker with two working moms: Birgitte, who is an engineer, and Yael, who works at a university. Living in beautiful Bergen, Norway, Rowan has been lucky to have one of his moms at home on parental leave up until he was a year old, and for now he is at a nanny’s three days a week. Yael speaks English to Rowan, and Birgitte speaks a mixture of English and Norwegian. Both of them use baby sign language to help facilitate Rowan’s early communication and to provide a bridge between his two languages.
How We Started Baby Sign Language
Birgitte and I knew other families that used signs with their babies, and I had studied ASL for a year when I was in college. I started using the sign for milk when I offered to nurse Rowan beginning when he was about five months old. We had looked at books on signing with your baby, but we didn’t really get serious about using other signs until Rowan signed “milk” back one night at bedtime.
Rowan signs “bear”
That first sign came in early August when Rowan was 9.5 months. He got a lot of positive feedback!
“You want milk? You signed milk! Of course you can get milk!”
I gave him the opportunity to nurse right away. After that he used the sign for milk every time he wanted to nurse, until about 12 months.
We were excited by that first sign. Then for a long while there was only one sign at a time. Rowan would learn a new sign, and the previous sign he had been using would disappear. Right around when he turned 13 months, he started adding signs, and very quickly, sometimes after seeing the sign only two times.
My advice for other parents: Be very patient! I signed milk to Rowan for several months every time he nursed before he signed anything back.
What We Love about Baby Sign Language
The most wonderful benefit of using baby sign language is seeing Rowan’s excitement at his ability to communicate with us about what he needs or wants, what he is seeing and thinking. It’s also exciting for us to have a little peek into Rowan’s world before he is able to express himself with spoken language. Birgitte and I are constantly thinking about what new signs to introduce.
At almost 14 months, Rowan can (and regularly does) sign: light, all done, dog, more, music, book, ball, car, food, bird (which he also uses for duck), bear, cheese, egg, mobile (he uses the sign for fan, since we don’t have any ceiling fans at home).
He also understands a good many other signs that we sign to him.
Baby Signing Success
When Rowan was 13 months, the family went into town for the annual Christmas tree lighting event and concert that ends with a big fireworks display. Rowan hadn’t seen fireworks before, and he was fascinated. (Yes, he had ear protection on).
Later, while having dinner at home, Yael, Birgitte and a visiting friend were talking about the fireworks. Suddenly Rowan raised both hands, signed “light” all over the place, waved his arms around. Then leaned his head far back looking up, as if looking at the sky. Then he looked at the adults and blew raspberries, making little explosive noises. He was talking about the fireworks! It was amazing!
Watch Rowan sign…
How Tiny Signs Online Helped
Tiny Signs Online was critical to our family’s success with early communication. We were already using the sign for milk and had long wanted to start baby sign language with Rowan. We had even bought a book, but it wasn’t until we made the commitment to the online course and watched the videos that we really started using signs in earnest.
Lane’s videos offered many important tips, especially about choosing which signs to use and how to recognize your baby’s early signs. Lane is enthusiastic and her suggestions are always helpful and to the point.
Through the members-only Facebook group, Lane has answered our questions almost right away, including quick videos to show particular signs by request, which kept up our motivation to keep signing. We also enjoyed sharing stories and successes.
Even though we had a baby sign book at home that we thought was quite good, the course really motivated us to use sign language actively, and to seek out and introduce new signs based on Rowan’s interests.
Join Tiny Signs Online
Learn more about Tiny Signs Online today to begin your own baby signing story.
Overheard in class…
One Saturday morning at my Tiny Signs class in Boston, I heard a dad say the following to another parent…
“Well now that I’m learning a little sign language, I’ll be able to talk to people anywhere I go!”
A Common Misconception
Thinking that there is one “sign language” used throughout the world is a surprisingly common misconception. However, most people (when they actually give it some thought) quickly understand why that just isn’t possible.
Languages Evolve Geographically
Like spoken languages, sign languages evolve based on the geographic communities that use them, and are passed along from one generation to the next within those geographic regions. If you think about it, how would a Deaf person in rural Thailand learn to use the same sign language as the Deaf community in Australia? It just doesn’t make sense. And, because sign languages are constantly changing (there was no ASL sign for “texting” 10 years ago!), it would be impossible for communities across the globe to keep up with each other’s ever-changing vocabulary.
There is No One “Sign Language”
So there is no one “sign language” but many beautiful and diverse sign languages around the world. In the US and most of Canada, we use American Sign Language (ASL), while in England they use British Sign Language (BSL).
So while both the US and UK share a spoken language with English, our sign languages are quite different. And while the US and France have different spoken languages, our sign languages – ASL and LSF (Langue des Signes Française) – are quite similar as the head teacher at the first school for the Deaf in the US was French. Fascinating, right? :)
So Now You Know
So the next time you hear someone talking about how “sign language is universal,” you can gently correct them. There are more than a hundred different sign languages in the world, and American Sign Language is just one of them.
The Surprising Question I Get All the Time
When I started teaching Tiny Signs classes back in 2009, I never would have guessed that the question I would get asked in almost every class session would be, “does it matter which hand I sign with?”
But it’s a great question and I’m always happy to answer. I actually have TWO answers to the question: the official American Sign Language answer and the “signing with a squirmy baby in your arms” answer. Check out the video to hear my explanation, or skip to below for a quick summary…
Here’s a quick recap…
For one-handed signs – like “milk” – use your dominant hand. Your dominant hand is the hand you write with.
Two-Handed Signs (same hand shape and motion)
For some two-handed signs – like “more” – it doesn’t matter because your hands are doing the exact same thing.
Two-Handed Signs (different hand shape and motion)
For some two-handed signs – like “tree” – your dominant hand (the one you write with) takes a starring role doing the main motion or action of the sign, and your other hand (non-dominant hand) takes a supporting role.
I hope that helps if this was a question on your mind. Let me know if you have any other questions in the Comments below!