Our oldest son signing “book” at 18 months.

Until recently, I’ve always concentrated on the positive aspects of teaching baby sign language. I lived it daily with my own children for over a decade, and saw the benefits.  It looks like I was lucky, I did it right.  I was a teacher married to a pediatrician; I’d better have done it right.

Now I am reading more about the “negatives” of teaching a baby to sign. At first, I found questions with easy answers like, “Does signing delay speech?” Nothing I have found indicates that signing will delay speech.

Now it is time to weigh in on other issues. I read an article on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_sign_language#Pros_and_Cons) that included studies questioning the benefits of baby sign language.  I am not trying to fight or fault Wikipedia, but I do have comments on some statements referenced in article, so I mention Wikipedia as the reference.

I don’t disagree with everything in the article. For example, it states, “Researchers have suggested the possibility of parents and experimenters being overly liberal in attributing sign or word status to early attempts at communication by children.[26]” I have to assume that happens sometimes.  I guess you could call that a negative, but it is probably also true about teaching a baby to talk, and we still teach that.

One statement in the article was, “Puccini and Liszkowski found that when infants associate labels with objects, they use verbal cues more frequently than gestures to make these associations.[27] ” Assuming the context was hearing children in hearing environments, I‘d expect that.  If the baby is exposed to more speaking than signing, that’s what they will do more.  That’s not a negative.  That’s what we want them to do.  And that’s what I teach in my classes.  Signing is a bonus.

Another statement said, “When teaching a child baby sign, an infant’s attention is directed away from what they are interested in and is redirected towards the adult and the desired sign.” That borders on what I would call ‘bad teaching’.  I teach using what the baby wants at the moment as being the sign to teach.  There is a 1 or 2 second distraction while the sign is done, then attention returns to what the baby wanted in the first place.  It worked well with my children, follows good teaching principles, and seems to follow a baby’s developmental abilities.

Yet another statement was, “It has also been proposed by researchers that baby sign may increase parental stress rather than decrease it because of busy lifestyles that may be disrupting interactions between parents and children.” Hopefully you can guess what I am going to say next.  The parent is probably not using baby signing properly.  I recommend that the parent(s) start learning to sign before the baby is born so that they are comfortable with signing before they start trying to teach their child.  That way they aren’t trying to teach and learn at the same time.  Many parents don’t decide to start until their baby is already home, but still they don’t need to stress about it.  It isn’t hard, you just need to know what to do and why that’s the way to do it.  I’ll give you a hint, though; just choose 1 or 2 signs to work on at a time, don’t overwhelm yourself or your baby.  I teach a way that is easy and works well.  Parents seem to like my approach.  That’s why I wrote a book. The subject of classes and books leads me to the last point in the article that I’ll address in this post.

The statement “Teaching baby sign outside of research settings does not allow for the parent to raise questions or concerns to trained individuals[6]” sounds like it was made by a self-serving or narrow-minded researcher. There are good baby sign language classes.  Classes are often taught by teachers – people who can answer questions.

That brings up a concern I’ve had for a while. Not all books or all classes teach how to properly teach baby sign language, but there are good ones.  I’ve been thinking lately about how to determine what makes a class or book ‘good’, and let parents know.  Said another way, which approaches suit different parents.  If you have thoughts, please send me a comment.

When I see ‘evidence’ of negatives to baby sign language, the causes usually seem like the result of inexperience or poor teaching methods. Anyone learning anything will have to go through the ‘inexperience’ phase, so we just have to do our best with it.  The problems resulting from inexperience, including poor teaching methods, can be minimized by resources like good books and classes.

Unfortunately, some baby sign language studies seem to have used test subjects that were poorly taught. If that is true, the ‘negatives’ are not as strong as the studies conclude, but they do underscore the benefit of proper teaching methods.  What parents can take from that is, spend $5 or $10 to buy a good book (or 2) or take a good class.  I don’t charge for my class.  It lasts one-and-a-half hours and is intended for parents-to-be, but anyone can attend.  A teacher the next town over does not charge, either.  She does several one hour classes on consecutive weekends primarily for infants and toddlers, and their parents.  I have sat in on her class and consider it to be a good one.  I have seen classes I did not care for.

The Wikipedia article included another point I have to agree with: “Due to promotional products, easy access to baby sign tutorial videos, and representations in popular culture parental attempts at signing with their baby may be more focused on the social fad instead of an intention to potentially enhance their child’s communication skills.[10” I consider that a mixed bag; it is unfortunate that some people don’t really take it seriously enough to do it right, but perhaps they still help promote the idea and keep it going.  And hopefully they still make a positive impact on their baby despite themselves.

The Wikipedia article referenced several studies which questioned the value of baby sign language. I question some of their conclusions, but at least people are looking at the subject.  There should be more research, but the studies should be done the same way teaching should be done – properly.  Hopefully, future studies will help scientifically define the best ways to teach babies at different developmental stages, which will not automatically match chronological age. I do hope they will be more open-minded about the real and long-term benefits.

Properly taught, baby sign language has benefits. Communication is one benefit, but not the only one.  Properly taught, baby sign language does not have real negatives in my experience.

As I wrap this post up, I am thinking of ways signing impacted my family. A situation I haven’t mentioned in my books or previous posts involves my oldest son, now graduated from college.  When he was perhaps 5 years old, well past the age we were actively teaching him new signs, he was still using signing a bit.  The background to this story is that his mom was running her own pediatric clinic, and working over 100 hours a week.  I worked there, too, in the front office during the day and cleaning and doing maintenance at night.  Sleep was a rare commodity.  Sometimes our son would quietly come into the parent’s bedroom early in the morning if we got a day off to ask me if he could have breakfast.  He would gently wake me up and sign what he wanted.  To the best of my knowledge, he rarely, if ever, woke his mom up doing this.  It was his idea; he just started doing it.  In the context of baby signing, it may have been a little thing.  To a tired mom, it allowed for much needed sleep.  I consider that a benefit, one that was worth the effort even if we discount the other benefits we enjoyed.

Here are links to my parenting books:

Sign Language for Hearing Babies, amazon.com/Language-Hearing-Babies-Brian-Fisher-ebook/dp/B01EJXNZ5K/ , and

You Are Your Child’s Most Important Teacher, amazon.com/Your-Childs-Most-Important-Teacher-ebook/dp/B01C7SFENA/.

Until next time,

Happy signing!

The importance of properly teaching your baby sign language
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