Sign language in infants and toddlers

Sign language in infants and toddlers

This article is about the usage of sign language to communicate with infants and toddlers.


In the United States, teaching sign language to non-signing families to communicate with their hearing infants and toddlers was developed by Linda Acredolo, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and Susan Goodwyn, professor of psychology at California State University, Stanislaus.Fact|date=October 2007 Their research began in 1982, and produced a 1985 article in Human Development titled “Symbolic gesturing in language development: A case study.” [cite web | url= | title=Supporting Research | publisher= Baby Signs| accessdate=2007-03-27 ]

Joseph Garcia, an ASL interpreter and a leading proponent of use of ASL in communicating with infants and toddlers, began with his graduate thesis in 1986, an analysis of the role sign language could play in early childhood language acquisition. His research indicated that babies who are exposed to signs regularly and consistently at six to seven months of age can begin using signs effectively by the eighth or ninth month. [cite web | url= | title=Dr. Joseph Garcia | publisher= Stratton/Kehl Publications, Inc. | accessdate=2008-03-19 ]


These proponents believe that while infants and toddlers have a desire to communicate their needs and wishes, they lack the ability to do so clearly because the production of speech, which requires coordinating the lips, tongue, breath, and vocal cords simultaneously, lags behind cognitive ability in the first months and years of life.Fact|date=October 2007 This gap between desire to communicate and ability often leads to frustration and tantrums.Fact|date=October 2007 Proponents believe that hand-eye coordination is possible in advance of the acquisition of verbal skills, and that infants can learn to express their needs using simple signs for common words such as "eat", "sleep", "more", "hug", "play", "cookie", "teddy bear", etc., before they are able to produce understandable speech. [cite web | url= | title= Benefits for Babies Using Baby Sign Language | publisher= | accessdate=2007-03-27 ]


Proponents have identified two main categories of words used, those which are "need-based" and those which are "highly motivating".


Need-based signs include such signs as "drink", "food", "sleepy", "hot"/"cold", "change me", etc. "Drink" or "thirst" can be expressed by mimicking drinking out of a bottle. "Eating" could be expressed by making a similar motion, or by rubbing one's stomach.

Sara Bingham, founder of WeeHands Baby Sign Language Inc. and author of The Baby Signing Book suggests the use of routine sign vocabulary: "As well as signs for favourite things, incorporate signs for everyday routines. These may not be as motivating but they happen all day, every day. Signs for EAT, SLEEP, PLAY and CHANGE fit into this category."

Highly motivating

Highly motivating signs focuses on items of interest or entertainment to the child, such as signs for "doggy", "toy", "friend", etc. A parent can encourage growth in the child's vocabulary by teaching them signs for items that the child desires and seeks out.

Bingham also advocates the use of highly motivating sign vocabulary: "Try to focus on objects and activities that are really motivating to your baby and show her 3-5 signs related to these objects. My son’s first signs were FISH, CAR and TRAIN because these were his favourite things. My daughter's first signs included MORE, EAT and MILK. Her favourite things were food, food and more food."


In a recent article in the British Psychological Society's "The Psycholgist" [cite web
url =
title = The great baby signing debate
date = 3 April 2008
accessdate = 2008-04-03
publisher = The British Psychological Society
] Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon has considered in detail the theoretical bases behind the growth of this phenomenon and some of the claims made by its supporters [ Doherty-Sneddon, G., "The great baby signing debate", The Psychologits, Vol. 21, Part 4, Aptil 2008, pp300-303 ]

As Doherty-Sneddon points out that so-called "baby signing" is not entirely new. Variants have been used by speech and language therapists for decades with children who have speech and/or cognitive impairments (e.g. Clibbens et al., 2002 [Clibbens, J., Powell, G.G. & Atkinson, E. (2002). Strategies for achieving joint attention when signing to children with Down's syndrome. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 37(3), 309–323] ). it is widely recognised that communication is at the heart of child development, be it cognitive, social, emotional or behavioural (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978 [Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press ] ).

Clinicians and researchers have highlighted the association between communicative difficulties and behavioural problems. For example, Paul and Kellog (1997) [Paul, R. & Kellog, L. (1997). Temperament in late talkers. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38, 803–811] found that children who were late talkers at age two years were more shy, aloof and less outgoing at age six. Similar poor social-emotional adjustment was found in late talking toddlers, along with higher reported parent-child dysfunction by mothers, in a study by Irwin et al. (2002) [Irwin, J.R., Carter, A. & Briggs-Gowan, M.J. (2002). The social-emotional development of ‘late-talking’ toddlers. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 41, 1324–1332] .

While baby signing promoters claim various benefits verified in experimental research, however, there is in fact a dearth of actual research. The American team led by Acredolo and Goodwyn has been responsible for driving research into the effects of baby signing on child development. They claim that babies readily acquire symbolic gestures when exposed to enhanced gesture training. They also propose (Acredolo et al., 1999 [Acredolo, L.P., Goodwyn, S.W., Horobin, K. & Emmons, Y. (1999). The signs and sounds of early language development. In L. Balter & C. Tamis-LeMonda (Eds.) Child psychology (pp.116–139). New York: Psychology Press] , Goodwyn et al., 2000 [Goodwyn, S., Acredolo, L. & Brown, C.A. (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24, 81–103 ] ) that those taught to sign reap rewards such as:
* larger expressive and receptive spoken language vocabularies;
* more advanced mental development;
* a reduction in problematic behaviours like tantrums resulting from frustration; and
* improved parent–child relationships.

The mechanisms underlying these benefits are proposed to include:
* an increased number of episodes of joint visual attention during interactions between parents and toddlers, known to be associated with improved language skills;
* empowering of the infant to focus the topic and context of conversation;
* the discussion and clarification of concepts
* added practice with the symbolic function.

Doherty-Sneddon claims that a key issue is ensuring that sufficient and appropriately designed research is available to back the claims made in relation to baby signing. Reviewing 17 studies of the impacts of baby signing on normally developing hearing children, Johnston et al. (2005) [Johnston, J., Durieux-Smith, A. & Bloom, K. (2005). Teaching gestural signs to infants to advance child development. First Language, 25, 235–251 ] concluded that although benefits were reported in 13 of the studies, various methodological weaknesses leave the evidence unconfirmed. Certainly, research into the effects of baby signing needs better control groups, such as children who are involved in equally interesting and fun activities based around adult and child language interaction but not baby signing.

Volterra et al. (2006) [Volterra, V. Iverson, J.M. & Castrataro, M. (2006). The development of gesture in hearing and deaf children. In B. Schick et al. (Eds.) Sign language development. New York: Oxford University Press ] conclude that enhanced gesture input for hearing children is a catalyst for gesture acquisition, and especially the use of representational form and hence symbolic communicative function. They add that this enhancement is short-lived (to between 12 and 15 months of age). Doherty-Sneddon argues, however, that this timescale represents only a general norm. The enhancement and advantage is far more extended in the many toddlers who are not speaking until well after their second birthdays.

Doherty-Sneddon concludes by arguing that there are three different levels of support for the benefits of baby signing:
* indicative, if not evidentially strong, evidence from baby signing research;
* related evidence from deaf sign and hearing gesture/language research;
* compelling anecdotal support from families who have embraced the approach.

In popular culture

*In "Meet the Fockers", Jack (Robert De Niro's character) had taught his grandson "Little Jack" in sign language. The twins that portrayed Little Jack (Bradley and Spencer Pickren), learned sign language from watching "Signing Time!" videos.

ee also

*Child development
*Language acquisition


External links

* [ Free BSL BABY SIGNING ARTICLE - Free Download from]
* [ Baby Sign Language Free Resource Site]
* [ Sign with your Baby] Dr. Joseph Garcia's ground breaking work in sign language with babies
* [ Articles on General Parenting and Sign Language from Signing Time!]
* [ Teach your baby to sign at home with Bamba]
* [ Baby sign language gift]
* [ Bamba's First Comforts baby signing kit]

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