Even parents who have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for their children often ask, “Should we use baby signs?” just to fill the gap during the time from identification to cochlear implantation, or identification to those first spoken words. If you’re to believe the media hype, every parent, those of children with and without hearing loss, is doing it. So what could be the problem?
However, media hype is just that: hype. A marketing frenzy created by companies that care way more about their bottom line than your child’s development or any kind of real research, making wildly unsubstantiated claims that baby signs will do everything from increase your child’s IQ to solve world hunger (okay, maybe not that last one). When we really examine the sources, are baby signs all they’re cracked up to be? Here is what I discuss with parents:
If you have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for your child, start in the direction you mean to go. Devoting time and energy to learning signs, even baby signs, that you plan on dropping later is taking precious time off task and siphoning your energy away from what you’ve identified as your primary goal: becoming the first and best teacher who can help your child learn to listen and talk. I believe that parents have the right to choose whatever communication method will work best for their family. But I advise them: once you choose a communication method, run after it like crazy and give it 100%. That is how the “success stories” in any communication mode are made.
Another aspect to consider is that baby signs are not full, complete language. By only signing key words, parents are providing their child reduced language input, when they have at their disposal a full, fluent language (their native language(s)) already in the home. If you’re talking to your baby and only signing key words (“Do YOU WANT your BOTTLE? It’s time to take a DRINK. Are YOU HUNGRY?) it’s like talking to a dog who only hears, “Wah wah wah wah wah LEASH wah wah WALK wah wah TREAT.” You’re being the Charlie Brown teacher, and your baby is not building the crucial linguistic connections in the brain for a full language system. (This is another reason why I encourage parents who choose a sign language approach to become fluent… yesterday).
The signs taught in baby signs books/videos/DVDs/flashcards (don’t get me started on the flashcards) are iconic. That is, if you’ve ever played a game of charades, you probably know these signs. They’re signs that make sense because you’re literally acting out or creating a picture of the thing you’re discussing (think about the signs for book, drink, eat, etc.). If you think about spoken language, there is nothing inherently “book” about the word “book.” Nothing about how you say “cat” actually means the animal “cat.” This is an important difference. We have to help infants and toddlers learn the relationship between words and their referents. There are non-iconic signs in ASL, but they’re not the ones in the standard baby sign repertoire. If your goal is spoken English, you’re much better served helping your child establish spoken word-referent connections instead.
Parents are often sold on the many myths promoted by those who have a significant financial interest in selling baby sign materials. But do they have any merit?
Myth: Baby signs encourage bonding by enabling children to express their needs sooner. Baby signs serve to decrease parental responsiveness. There are real, significant, evolutionarily and developmentally important reasons why babies do not talk until they’re around a year old. Most mothers of infants can identify their baby’s cries and tell you that the infant has distinct sounds for hunger, wetness, or pain. There’s a purpose for this! Babies aren’t supposed to tell us what they need — it’s part of the bonding process that helps parents become attuned to their children’s needs. It may be more convenient for you to have your child “tell” you what he wants, but you are short-circuiting a very important bonding process.
Myth: My child is so smart, he could tell me he wanted more food using sign way before any of the other babies could say it. This is simple operant conditioning. If I do X [the sign], I get Y [more food]. You can train a rat to do this. I don’t think it says much about your child’s long-term intellectual potential. Isolated signs like this to get what you want are a “trick,” not a full language system.
Myth: Because baby signs are marketed as “educational,” they must have value. Unlike words like “Reduced Fat” or “Caffeine Free,” “Educational” is not a federally regulated label. Anyone can advertise their products as being “educational” without the slightest hint of research behind them. At the end of the day, no matter how cute the story is behind the product, or how hard they try to sell you on the idea that this is a “family” production or “by moms, for moms,” these companies care about their bottom line, not your child. That’s just how capitalism works.
So what does the research say about baby signs?
Topshee Johnston et al. (2003) performed a comprehensive review of nearly 1,200 studies that had been conducted on baby signs and found that only five showed that baby sign programs had a positive effect on child language… and the positive effects shown in those studies did not last past age two. An exhaustive review of the evidence showed overwhelmingly neutral/negative effects from baby sign language. Any positive outcomes noted did not have persistent, long-lasting effects on the child’s language and cognitive development later in life. By age two, it was impossible to tell the difference between children who had used baby signs and those who had not.
Kirk et al. (2012), found no evidence to support claims that using baby signing with babies helps to accelerate their language development. While babies did learn the signs and begin using them before they started talking, they did not learn the associated words any earlier than babies who had not been exposed to baby signs, and did not show any overall enhancement in language development. The study did find that helping parents become more attentive to their children’s gestures served to increase responsiveness and bonding, but this is a standard part of early intervention in auditory verbal therapy, and not unique to baby sign programs.