Scientific evidence shows that signing with babies is well worthwhile

Being a scientist, I always desired to see claims or statements regarding signing and its benefits being well supported by evidence.  It is also important for me to see how the evidence stacks up against some of the misconceptions regarding signing – such as that introducing signing to hearing babies will delay their speech development.

So, apart from sharing my positive experience with signing, I would like to share with you evidence that I found which substantiates that signing contributes to the holistic development of a child well beyond their signing age.

The Original Baby Signs Study

The longditudinal study conducted by the founders, child development experts Drs Linda Acredolo & Susan Goodwyn studied the development of 11 month old babies from more than 140 families.  Each family was randomly assigned to a signing or a non-signing group.  The groups were equivalent at the beginning of the study in terms of the following characteristics: sex and birth order of the children, their tendency to vocalize or verbalize words, and the parents’ education and income levels.

The children were assessed using standardized language measures at 11, 15, 19, 24, 30, and 36 months of age.  In addition, as many children as could be relocated at age 8 were assessed using the WISC-III IQ test, the most commonly used measure of children’s intelligence.

Baby Signs Language Study Results

Results of the study revealed that 24-month-old babies using baby sign language were on average talking more like 27- or 28-month-olds, representing more than a three-month advantage over the non-signers.  The babies using baby sign language were also putting together significantly longer sentences.  In addition, 36-month-old signers on average were talking like 47-month-olds, putting them almost a full year ahead of their average age mates.  At 8 years, those who had used sign language as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ on the WISC-III than their non-signing peers.

In addition to helping babies learn to talk and jumpstarting their intellectual development, a number of very important social-emotional benefits were also revealed.  Acredolo and Goodwyn found that signing with hearing babies:

  • reduces frustration, biting and other aggressive behaviours;
  • helps parents and teachers be more observant and responsive;
  • builds trust between babies and their parents and caregivers;
  • allows babies to share their worlds revealing just how smart babies really are;
  • promotes positive emotional development; • boosts babies’ self-confidence and builds self-esteem.

(Excerpt from the Baby Signs Too website)

It is not just the founders of BabySign® who have made these findings.  Dr Marliyn Daniels, who is another leading researcher in the field of American Sign Language (ASL) and non-verbal communication had similar scientific conclusions.

One of the common misconception is that introducing hearing babies to signs may delay their speech development.  Daniels (2001) stated that ASL in no way delays or interferes with normal acquisition of English.  She also found that young hearing children who know ASL have an increased facility with English and a larger vocabulary than their counterparts who did not know signs.  This significant gain remains with them throughout life.

Well developed fine motor skills and a small amount of vocabulary understanding are required for babies to make their first sign.  Adamson et al (2004) found that babies’ ability to co-ordinate attention with a social partner (e.g. peers, carers and parents) is important for the development of representational abilities such as language and play.  Signing will assist with this social interaction.  Further, Daniels (2001) stated that “simultaneously presenting words visually, kinaesthetically, orally enhances a child’s language development”.  Since words are always said with the signs, children will be learning the word sounds as well as the signs.  When children have eventually mastered the sound, signs naturally fall away.

Daniels (2001) found that on average signing babies used their 1st recognisable sign at 8 ½ months, mastered 10 signs vocabulary at 13 months and combine signs at 17 months.  Whereas, the comparable mean age for spoken language development are 12 months for 1st word, 15 months for 10 word vocabulary and 21 months for combining of words.  Babies are able to sign much earlier than speak because muscles required for them to co-ordinate speech (mouth, tongue and vocal cord) do not develop until 12 to 18 months.

“Babies understand much more than they are able to say.  Speaking is difficult.  From a purely developmental point of view, babies achieve the ability to construct language with their hands at least 6 to 12 months earlier than they do with their vocal apparatus.”  Daniels (2001)

Thus, signing empowers babies to have meaningful and active communication with carers at a much earlier age.  Signing eliminates the need for children to cry, scream and carry on because children have the tool to express their needs.  Imagine the amount of frustration this reduces and the self-confidence for children this instils!

With so many proven short-term and most importantly, long term benefits to learning baby signs, seize the opportunity to introduce it to your babies.

References :

Acredolo, L. P., & Goodwyn, S.W. (July 2000). The long-term impact of symbolic gesturing during infancy on IQ at age 8. Paper presented at the meetings of the International Society for Infant Studies, Brighton, UK.

Daniels, M. (2001). Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy. Westport, Connecticut

Bergin and Garvey. Adamson, L. B., Bakeman, R., & Deckner, D. F. (2004). The development of symbol-infused joint engagement. Child Development, 75, 1171-1187

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