When I was a brand-new parent I did most of the stuff the other mothers around me were doing because I didn’t know what else to do. But one thing I decided against was signing to my baby. Frankly it just looked silly to me. Those grown women so earnestly gesturing to their babies who stared back blankly. It wasn’t for me. And anyway, Sage was one of those blissed out, but completely out-to-lunch babies who didn’t really seem to settle in here on planet Earth until his first birthday. I was fairly certain all that hand waving would go right over his happy head.
But then the other day I witnessed an amazing thing. I was over at a friend’s house and there were lots of kids and babies mucking it up. The 12-month old in the group squawked and then put the side of her hand up to her mouth. Her mother responded by saying, “You want a drink of water?” and went to get the sippy cup. The cup was handed over, the kid tipped her head back and took a big swig, and the mom resumed her conversation.
I was dumbfounded. “Wait, what just happened?” I asked. “She signed for water,” her mom said. That, I thought, was cool.
Since Sasha is clearly more on the ball than Sage was at six months, I decided to try it myself. I pulled out a book I had on signing to babies and learned the signs for eat, more, and milk. Now I’m sorry to say, I look like one of those over-zealous new moms I snickered at three years ago. But what the hell.
This little slice of domestic news wouldn’t be post-worthy were there not some controversy. My husband wondered whether signing would delay Sasha’s speech and I had a vague memory of that being a concern. So I decided to do some research.
Here’s what I found. Signing with babies does not inhibit the development of spoken language, and may in fact help promote it. In 2000, a study in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, looked at 103 eleven-month old babies who were divided into three groups. One group was taught and encouraged to sign, one group was not taught anything in particular, and one group was taught and encouraged to speak. All of the infants were evaluated using a variety of language measures at 11, 15, 19, 24, 30, and 36 months with the researchers looking specifically for group differences in verbal development.
The kids in the signing group learned on average 20 signs. Some of these seemed very useful, such as asking for another book or for more Cheerios. But from a chart in the study that listed the signs kids used, I also learned that small children can tell you that Grandma has bad breath by pointing a finger to a wrinkled nose and that a “very hairy stranger is approaching” by scratching their armpits like a monkey. Maybe there’s a reason they can’t talk.
The results showed that the kids who signed had better verbal skills until they all reached age three, when the playing field leveled out. This from the conclusion:
The data are consistent in demonstrating an advantage in verbal language development for those children who were encouraged to include symbolic gestures in their early communicative repertoires.
The researchers say this is likely due to the fact that parents often talk while they sign so the child is hearing a lot more words than they might otherwise. Also, the topic of conversation is child-directed which means they are interested. And gesturing comes easier than talking to very small children, which encourages them to pursue communication with those around them.
Ultimately the kids ended up the same, so why bother? The researchers say it cuts down on toddler frustration. But I would argue that the pre-talking time is frustrating for parents too. Your kid says “ba!!” and you start running around like an idiot. Ball?? Nooo. Banana??? Nooo. Babaganoosh???? WHAT DO YOU WANT???
Oh, a drink of water? No problem.