Baby Sign Language

In my infant/toddler class at BYU-Idaho, my professor spent a few class periods discussing the benefits of baby sign language and how to teach it to your baby. After that class I was so excited to someday teach my babies sign language so I could better communicate with them before they were able to speak.

Since that time I've heard a lot of different opinions on baby sign language, for example:

  1. "My friend's, cousins, sister's, hairdresser's daughter learned sign language and she refused to speak, so you shouldn't teach your baby sign language or they won't learn how to talk!"
  2. "If you teach your baby sign language it will improve their vocabulary, self-esteem, IQ, reduce tantrums, etc. etc. etc."
  3. "I taught my baby sign language and it has really improved our communication and relationship."

There are a lot of conflicting opinions out there about infant sign language, especially since there is a profitable market in selling baby sign language materials. The claims companies make are similar to opinion #2: that your baby will be a genuis if you take the time to teach them sign language.

I've personally spoken with people who are on the other side of the spectrum and believe it is actually detrimental to language development.

Finally, I've spoken to parents who have actually taught their own children sign language and have found it not only to be functional in terms of communication, but also in strengthening and enriching their relationship.

I really wanted to know whether or not sign language is actually beneficial for infants, and if it is, in what areas? Language development, cognitive, relational, etc.

So, instead of reading the many websites that a Google search provides, I went straight to the source: BYU's academic database.

What I found surprised me.

There have been very few high-quality studies conducted on baby sign language. One in particular showed that baby sign language does not slow language development nor speed it up.
Infants exposed to gesture did not differ from control conditions on language outcomes; thus, no support was found for previous claims that encouraging gesturing with infants accelerates linguistic development (Kirk et al., 2013).

What can be detrimental to language development is if you don't verbally use the word when you make the corresponding sign. Also, if you are attempting to teach your child ASL as a second language you should expect a delay in language. When infants and toddlers are learning two ore more languages it is normal for their speech to be delayed as compared to children learning only one language.

To address the issue of benefits stated by websites, researchers conducted a meta-analysis (gathering and comparing many study results) and found that of the 82 sources cited by baby sign language websites, 90% of those were not actually studies, but opinion articles that did not provide sound evidence of the benefits they claim to accompany teaching your baby sign language (Nelson, White, Grewe, 2012).

So, believe 10% or less of what you read on websites selling materials for baby sign language.

I've heard the third opinion quite a few times; Parents are teaching their child to communicate through gestures so they can understand and better help them get what they need. One friend said that it has helped reduce tantrums because her son was able to gesture what he wanted and avoided the guessing game altogether.
Another friend had a 15 month old that was signing most of the basic things. I have to say I was in awe to watch parent and child communicate through gestures. It really made me see the infant as an advanced, intelligent human being that is capable of communication and reason. Oh, and she developed verbal communication right on time, just in case you were wondering.

Out of all the studies and article I read, this area (parent-child relationship and behavior) held the most benefits and positive outcomes of baby sign language.

One experiment consisted of a group of mothers and infants assigned to learn hand gestures along with verbal communication, and the control group consisted of mothers and infants that just spoke verbally. According to the researchers:

The intervention [sign language] leads to a statistically significant increase in the frequency of synchronic interaction behaviors at the visual and tactile modes in comparison to the control group. (Góngora and Farkas, 2009)
In other words, sign language led to more bonding between parent and child, and they were more interactive and in sync both visually and physically. Elizabeth Kirk et al (2012)--the researchers that found no language benefit-- also found that "mothers in the gesture training conditions were more responsive to their infants' nonverbal cues and encouraged more independent action by their infant...suggesting an enhanced perception of their infant as capable of intentional action."

Why and how does sign language help the relationship with your infant?
The establishment of communication through symbolic gestures requires that each member of the dyad is constantly observing the other, the infant paying attention to the mother and the mother paying attention to her child. (Góngora and Farkas, 2009)

So, is sign language actually beneficial to your baby? Yes, it is, but not in the way that most people think. Sign language has the potential to change your view of your infant, and also reduce frustration because there is some way of communication, even in it's most basic form.
Teaching your infant sign language gives you more opportunities to bond with them and develop a synchronous relationship, which has a myriad of benefits in and of itself. 

I started doing a few signs with Sawyer since birth, one of which was "milk." Just this week he started signing back to me! I only do the basics, like milk, more, food, eat, hungry, tired, bedtime, and book/read. However, Aaron and I are learning more signs that we will slowly integrate in the next few months. 

If you would like to do sign language with your baby, here are a few things to know:
  1. You don't need to buy anything! There are websites, phone apps, and books at the library that can give you information.
  2. You don't need to use the official ASL signs. You can even make up your own! You just need to be consistent and use the same sign.
  3. Speak the word/phrase while you use the sign. I usually speak complete sentences and use a few signs while I speak. For example "Are you hungry (sign)? Do you want milk (sign)?"
  4. You can start at any age, but most sources say around 5-6 months.

And here is a cute video of Sawyer signing "milk." How do I know he is actually making the sign for milk and not some random hand movement? Well, he only does it at around the time I usually feed him, and he only does it before and during his meal :) It's really fun to see him trying to tell me what he wants, and I can't wait to see which sign he learns next!


  • Kirk, Elizabeth, Howlett, Neil, Pine, Karen J., Fletcher, Ben. To Sign or Not to Sign? The Impact of Encouraging Infants to Gesture on Infant Language and Maternal Mind-Mindedness. Child Development, Volume 84, Issue 2, pages 574–590, March/April 2013
  • Nelson, Lauri H., White, Karl, Grewe, Jennifer.Evidence for Website Claims about
    the Benefits of Teaching Sign Language to Infants and Toddlers with Normal Hearing. Infant and Child Development Volume 21, (2012).
  • Góngora, Ximena, Farkas, Chamarrita . Infant sign language program effects on synchronic mother–infant interactions, Infant Behavior and Development, Volume 32, Issue 2, April 2009, Pages 216-225.

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