Baby Sign Language: Does It Work?

By Elizabeth Kirk, University of York | February 4, 2015 11:29 am

baby sign

What if babies could tell us what they want, before they start crying for it? Bring in baby signing, a system of symbolic hand gestures for key works such as “milk,” “hot” and “all gone” that are taught to hearing babies as a way to communicate before they can talk.

The sign for milk, for example, is made by opening and closing the hand, while the sign for “more” by tapping the ends of the fingers together.

Now new research has reported that it’s even possible for babies to learn these signs just from viewing videos at home. The study found that babies learned to produce baby signs just as well from a video as they did if they were taught by their parents.

Yet only those babies who had been taught the signs from a parent showed evidence of understanding what the signs meant. The bigger question is whether these findings should be taken as encouragement to teach babies to sign and what impact it has on child development.

Misleading Marketing

Should parents be encouraged to sign with their babies? This is a question that I’m often asked and it’s one I’ve tackled in my own research. Baby signing burst onto the booming baby market back in the 1990s and has since gone global, attracting parents to spend money on classes, books and DVDs with claims that Baby Sign can help “improve” their baby in some way. Accelerated speech development, reduced frustration and increased IQ are just some of the claims that have been made. But there is little evidence to support these claims.

In 2012, American researcher Lauri Nelson and colleagues published an analysis of the credibility of the claims made on baby sign websites.

Across the 33 baby sign websites they identified, there was a high level of consistency in the types of claims made. Nelson traced the source of the evidence for each claim and found that more than 90 percent were based on opinion articles, not science. None of the claims relating to reduced tantrums, better self-esteem, or improved parent-child bonding were supported by any evidence at all, opinion or empirical.

Science and Signing

So what about the evidence for the other 10 percent? A review paper published in 2005 examined evidence from 17 studies published between 1980 and 2002 that had evaluated the effectiveness of signing with infants who could hear.

It concluded that the existing research was methodologically flawed and, because of this, there was “no evidence to suggest that Baby Sign had any benefits for child development.” This prompted me to conduct my own experiment, avoiding the pitfalls of previous studies, to test whether baby sign improves language development.

I randomly allocated parents and their babies to either baby sign training or a control condition and routinely measured the babies’ language development over one year, from when babies were eight months up until 20 months.

While the babies learned and used the signs (often before they could speak), doing so made no significant impact on their language development. The babies who signed did not start to talk any earlier, nor did their language progress any quicker than the babies in the control conditions.

Others have subsequently replicated this finding and another review paper published in December 2014 concluded that “there is no strong evidence to support the claimed benefits of baby sign.”

Family Effects

While the evidence clearly fails to support the notion that baby signing boosts development, there is no evidence that is actually harms or hinders child development. No studies have reported any negative effect of learning baby sign language on children’s outcomes.

However, other research I have been involved in found that parents who chose to attend a baby signing class had significantly higher stress levels than parents who attended other, non-educational classes with their baby.

Our interpretation of this finding was that parents with higher pre-existing stress may have been attracted to Baby Sign classes because of types of claims made about how baby sign can benefit them and their baby.

This is not to say that baby signing can’t be a fun thing to do: many parents and their children gain great pleasure from learning and using it together. But we need to move away from the fiction and stick to the facts: there is no evidence to support the claim that baby signing will accelerate a child’s development.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Image by leungchopan/ Shutterstock
The Conversation

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  • ejhaskins

    I think that sign is more intrinsic to humans that speech, Mothers tend to understand babies’ gestures without needing to learn any artificial (created) Sign Language. Babies also naturally understand gesture and facial expression from those around them.
    Maybe all that is really needed is to tell parents that they CAN communicate with their babies and that their babies CAN communicate with them well before the baby can actual ‘speak’,

  • Uncle Al

    If non-verbal communication is the first and dominant intellectual process, what will drive cerebral full connection and complexity development of speech and listening? A different kind of person will result. That signing is not the natural evolution of communication in any human culture except Deaf Culture is telling.

    It is matter of record that Deaf Culture went ballistic when cochlear implants and evolved software offered near-natural hearing to a large fraction of legally deaf people. Deaf Culture demanded it was not crippled handicapped other-abled disadvantaged to be marginalized and depopulated. Who sponsored this study and its application?

    Kodak in upstate New York eagerly hired and trained a large blind employee force to manufacture photographic film in utter darkness. To my knowledge, the deaf made no inroads into deafeningly noisy manufacturing environments wherein they would be greatly valued.

    • Maia

      Deaf people often do take “noisy” jobs. In my area it was often
      mentioned that Deaf people take jobs around loud printing presses and other machines.
      In fact, there is a school in language theory that suggests humans used signs before speech. Babies can sign before they can speak …which may indicate an older evolutionary origin.

      Why is sign language not just a second (or first) language?
      Learning more than one language when young is good for the brain!

    • Karen Gutrath

      I do believe gesturing and signing is the first form of communication between people, regardless of whether or not they learn formal ASL. All babies point to things, hold their arms up to be picked up, and wave before they can verbally speak. Teaching your child sign language only strengthens their ability to communicate their needs with their perspective on what interests them. And learning the actual language of the Deaf community is as beneficial to teaching children a second language early on just as teaching them French or Spanish is. I have seen first hand with my own children as well as other parents who signed the benefits of signing. When you sign, you move your body. When you move your hands, your child is more likely to pay attention to you. When you sign you often slow your verbal spoken words down and you repeat the words. By slowing down and repeating, you help your child pay attention to you and actually hear individual words. Learning sign language as helped me retain and remember words. When I learn a song using sign language, I am more likely to remember the words. Sign language benefits people who are more visual or Kinesthetic Learners. Lastly, even if signing was just for fun, isn’t when you have fun with your child that you are actually creating bonds with each other?

    • NYC-MA

      Sorry Uncle Al –

      I’m not sure why Deaf people have to fit in your vision of lower echelon workers in noisy environments.

      Historically, many Deaf people worked as printers for newspapers – very noisy environment. But now Deaf people work everywhere – as managers, as artists, as professors, as cashiers, as caretakers, as CEOs, etc. So there goes your assumption that Deaf people have to work in manual trades defined by their inability to hear.

      Also – there are vast numbers of psycholinguistic studies and brain scans of parts of the brain that light up when signing certain kinds of messages – see Karen Emmorey’s studies. Some of the brain patterns for spoken language appear with sign, some of the brain patterns for vision appear with sign.
      The brain is very plastic. It creates connections easily – especially when you acquire language before the age of 5. For example, hearing tonality, such as in Asian languages, is a lot easier if you are young. If you are interested – there’s lots of great data out there.

      Also, as for creating different kinds of people, knowing more than one language definitely gives different perspectives. In this case, it’s languages in more than 1 modality – auditory and visual.

      Yelling at someone across a savannah is probably more adaptive than having to be close and sign – and this trait likely came about when the FOXP2 gene appeared.

      But from my experience in crowded, noisy, social gatherings (like at bars and clubs) – being able to sign and be understood by your friends is definitely beneficial :)

    • Mary Smith

      So much ignorance it’s tragic.

      Firstly non verbal communication is EXTREMELY ancient and has always been part of human languages.

      Maybe you aren’t a smart person if you think it’s impossible to learn two different things at the same time. But that does not indicate that it’s impossible just that you are a dummy. Bilingual children learn multiple languages from birth all the time.

      As long as parents also speak the signs and speak to the child as well there has never been any evidence that it causes delays despite people like you who actively hate the deaf for no rational reason!

  • 7eggert

    Is this baby sign language similar to deaf sign language? Or is it it’s own langauge?

    Wouldn’t it be an opprtunity to use deaf sign language for this and teach more people to use it?

    • Adrianna

      baby sign is ASL.

      • Idan

        Or any other sign language used around the world.

    • NYC-MA

      Depends what you have learned. American Sign Language (ASL) is a language – with not only vocabulary but also grammar and facial expressions to complete the meaning. It is not a word for word language. Often what the baby sign people teach are signs for words. Those signs may or may not be correct, depending on who is the sign model in the lessons.

      Regardless, the ability to have babies express themselves in a way that their parents/caregivers can understand is priceless. I agree with the other responses that talked about the benefits of communication at a young age, not about the development of speech later. Although, there is plenty of research that shows that children of Deaf parents who communicated in sign language at an early age are often more successful at reading than their non-signing peers. The research is not about whether their spoken language is advanced.

  • Joyce Edmiston

    Actually, Marilyn Daniels researched and provided findings g that children who came from homes where parents used ASL scored HIGHER in reading skills than their peers from homes that did not. This is because many words have no actual sign and are finger spelled. Communication any language (and ASL is a credited, recognized language) is the most important thing ws can give our children besides love. My son was signing to me at 8 months old. (I am deaf) he was reading before he started school. Read “Dancing Hands” by Marilyn Daniels and her research and I think you will see a different perspective from the author of this article, and see teaching infants ASL indeed has more benefits than mentioned here.

    • iris

      It’s really interesting seeing the view of an academic compared to real people that use Baby Sign on a daily basis. Science and research is so easy to manipulate according to the bias of the researcher. It’s very easy to ask the questions that give you the answers you are looking for.
      I’ve done Baby Signing for 17 1/2 years and worked with 1000’s of families. Most of them would say it enhanced their families lives at the time it was needed. Did it improve IQ? I’ve no idea. We never set out to create more intelligent children, we set out to support the families and help the children communicate.
      If Baby Signing didn’t enhance communication it would be a growing phenomena.

  • Dana Cramer

    Sorry, but I have one nephew that signed a lot as a baby. He didn’t get as frustrated as his siblings had about things. And my niece is just starting to use the sign for eat. Even if all they learn is eat and done, this helps and gives them the ability to communicate something huge before they can articulate it.

  • Becky Rouzer Northcutt

    It’s sad that the author based her study on advertisements rather than on actual families who choose signing for valid reasons, like the need for babies to communicate without resorting to whining or crying. If she had observed babies who sign she would have seen that their lives are much less frustrating because they can ask for what they want and be understood. If she had surveyed families who choose signing, she would have learned that parents teach signing because they want to communicate with their baby, not influence language development. If she had compared sign instructional methods, she would have found that videos are a little easier for parents to learn from because signs are.not static like photos in books and it helps to see the entire motion. A study to disprove the claims of advertisers is not as valuable to parents as one that would look at the actual benefits of signing. It’s an amazing thing to be able to communicate with a baby. Maybe the experimenter should try that for a while. It’s quite lovely.

    • Don Ironborn

      The author addressed inaccurate information purporting to be science in a completely legitimate way. She never made a single statement denying the social benefits. I always get peeved when people don’t disagree with what was written about (helpful information mind you) but even so deign to decide for others what is more important to focus on. The fact of the matter is that they wouldn’t fraudulently advertise boosted IQ and whatnot if it wasn’t helping to sell the product.

  • amanda

    My baby has been signing for ten months and I am the only one in the family who regularly signs with her. We know about 30 words and she delights in signing with me. When she is with her dad and daycare she picks up cues and facial expressions, but I love how we can have a conversation with signing. She loves to point out trees, birds and flowers on our walk and now gets excited to see babies. She points to a baby and signs baby, smiling to me. When I ask her in sign if she wants to watch baby signing time or Winnie the poo, she answers in sign. She even has put five signs together to make full sentences, asking for things or sharing a preference. We have been doing “Baby Signing Time” since she was six months and she started signing at 8 months. She is now 18 months and I believe signing has helped her communicate her thoughts without having to wait for her words to come out. It reminds me of my grandfather who had a stroke when I was younger. He couldn’t say anything that made sense, but you could see in his eyes he wanted to say something. He could write on a chalkboard “yes” or “no” or simple things. I believe signing gives my daughter freedom to express herself a bit early and she enjoys sharing the language with her mommy. I believe anytime you sign with your baby or sing or read, you are helping those synapses wire themselves. Anything you can do to share quality time with your baby significantly improves their life outcome. There are countless studies that show the difference between families who read and sing with their kids, and families who do not. I believe signing is in this same boat. Since I have seen the beauty of signing with my little one with my own eyes, I would recommend it to everyone. I love love love communicating with my baby girl.

  • Guest

    I did this with my daughter.No classes just saw a special on the today show and the woman teaching said that no class is required,nor does it have to be certain sign you can make your own.It worked well because babies can express themselves but don’t have the vocal ability to say words yet.Much better than crying for a bottle or change of diaper.Communication skills at a young age are a benefit to both the child and parents

  • chomps

    I don’t sign with my children for any supposed intellectual benefit. I sign with them because my pre-verbal daughter was having fits when she wanted milk and when she needed help. If someone studied levels of frustration, I guarantee they’d see positive results. My N=1 study proved it, and I’m following it up with my second child.

  • Idan

    If you’re teaching your (hearing) child sign language in order to raise their IQ or quicken their development, then, yes, that’s probably not a good reason. If, however, you teach your child sign language so they can start telling you what they need and what they think at the age of 6-12 months rather than much later – you will be amply rewarded. It takes an entire level of guesswork and frustration out of raising a baby.

    You don’t really need any classes or anything. Grab a few dozen signs that are more relevant (“more”, “food”, “milk”, “drink”, “toilet”, “sleep”, “dog” etc.) and off you go. Make these signs as you talk to them, and they’ll catch on quickly. Make some up if you want! It really doesn’t matter, as long as you both know what’s said.

    The sweetest thing I ever saw was my boy, then aged 1 year, signing “train” while SLEEPING. I knew what my baby was dreaming about.

  • Phil

    Anecdotal data: My grandson learned as an infant some ASL to communicate with his totally deaf uncle. We noted the child didn’t become fully verbal as soon as some neighbor kids the same age. Now he’s eight years old and has verbal skills and a vocabulary far richer and more advanced than his peers. So what, a few months behind in asking verbally for more popcorn. Did it hurt him? Hey, I’m a granddad, what do I know? – And who cares, he’s a genius!

    • YeahRight

      Wait until the kid goes to university and finds himself in the lower third. :-)

  • YeahRight

    But that’s not what baby “advice” is about. It’s all about making money.

  • kuratali

    It may be true that children do not necessarily develop faster by learning to communicate in sign. However, the more valid point, the author missed, was that children can effectively communicate sooner via sign. This makes it much easier for the child to get wants and needs met. My grandchildren not only learned sign before they were one, by the time they were 15 months old they could ask for water, milk, nursing, food, play outside, more, again. As well as identifying father, mother, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandfather, grandmother, friends, stranger, love, help, hot, cold, car, bicycle,wagon, and on and on. It is amazing when you are in the check out line with your 18 month old grandson and he is signing that we forgot the milk and asking for candy.

  • Stuart

    I don’t know what impact baby signing has on development. I think that is a bigger research question. But I can tell you that when, as a divorced dad who had taught his daughter to sign, I showed up one day to pick up my one and a half (or some) year old daughter and she signed “happy” to me, it melted me. It was a level of communication I hadn’t quite expected. Yes, I could have read her simultaneous jumping for joy as the same thing. But in this case she was intentionally communicating to me that she was happy to see me. It went beyond the basic signs for “eat” and “drink” and the like. I don’t know the ultimate impact on her over time. But to this day (as an 8-year-old), she is quite articulate and able to talk very precisely about her feelings. Is there a connection? Additionally, her mother spoke Spanish to her as did her nannies, and teaching her sign was also my way of teaching her English, in addition to connecting with her. This article has to narrow a focus, in my view, too narrow a definition of what “works” means.

    • iris

      What a beautiful experience.
      Totally agree with your adding up.
      Sign is also a very beautiful language, it’s says so much more than spoken word so for these academics it’s so so sad that they cannot see the human side. I guess that’s academia for you.

  • Mary Smith

    My question was never answered but it is thus: does baby sign language help the baby better communicate what it wants or needs!

  • y3shuA imMANu3l

    Look 👇

    “West Virginia Flooding Leaves at Least 23 Dead, Governor Says
    KTLA-7 hours ago
    In Kanawha County, which includes the capital of Charleston, the Elkview River
    crested at 33.37 feet” 👈

  • y3shuA imMANu3l

    SIGN 👇

    “One river, the Elk River at Queen Shoals, West Va., rose to an all-time record height of 33.37 feet, breaking the previous record of 32 feet, set in 1888, the weather service reported.”

  • iris

    I provided over 50 families to more than one of the researches led by Universities of Manchester & Hertfordshire on baby signing run by Phd student, Dr Liz Kirk. Many families reported the research was poor and anti-baby signing. We invited her to see babies sign, she said she’d come but never turned up. They regularly asked us to gather families for them. Only one student ever came and was rude. We had many requests over 4 years from the University but decilined due to unprofessional behaviour. We also felt they were misleading us and the families. I believe in research and proving or disproving the value in something but when research is conducted over such short periods with tiny groups, 50ish families, how can you get real honest proof. My team & I have personally worked with in excess of 5000 children over 12+ years teaching Baby Signing & Music. Our evidence is very positive. Similar across UK & USA. Parents delight in their pre-verbal baby communicating with sign. The newly verbal babies use sign to support their not yet clear speech and the verbal toddlers usually have very clear speech and gradually drop the signs. Clear speech comes from hearing the word clearly, they see it, feel it, understand it, therefore speak it clearly. For the parents many of them Fewer tantrums means less stress. If a child is understood it’s natural they have less tantrums. Baby Sign doesn’t claim to stop tantrums but the tantrums associated with poor communication are reduced dramatically. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have been Baby Signing since 2001 and running classes since 2005. It’s now 2017 and I’m still teaching. That is a lot of experience. I say to families all the time, if Baby Signing didn’t work then people would not be interested. Things that work grow, things that don’t work don’t. We see inspired excited families. What does that say?


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