The Benefits of Baby Sign Language Extend Way beyond the First Few Years

by: Lisa Baade

Baby Sign Language is a communication method designed to be used with hearing babies and toddlers before they can speak. It is a simplified version of sign language designed to be easy enough for baby’s to use from 6 months of age. The baby signs are often borrowed or modified from traditional sign language. These baby signs are based on gestures that symbolize the action or meaning of a word and are designed so that they can be understood even if you don’t know any sign language at all. Baby Sign Language can be taught from birth although most children have the necessary hand eye co-ordination to begin signing back to their parents and caregivers by the age of 6 months. As most babies don’t begin talking until they are between 9 – 12 months of age, Baby Sign Language gives the child a significant head start on two way communication. This milestone may seem to be a small advantage to begin with however research has shown that this small advantage flows through to have larger developmental impact later on in life.

NIH Funded Baby Sign Language Experimental Studies

Baby Sign Language is not a new concept, although it still receives much media attention around the world. The first Baby Sign Language studies were conducted as early as 1989. One of the most highly regarded and a frequently referenced experimental study is a National Institute of Health (NIH) funded study conducted by Drs Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. This study was designed to determine the benefits of Baby Sign Language. The aim was to determine if Baby Sign Language would delay speech development in children. The children recruited into the study were assigned into two groups; the first group consisted of children that used Baby Sign Language and the second group consisted of children that did not. The children were recruited for the study at eleven months of age. Their speech and language development was followed up until they reached three years of age.

The study regularly assessed the speech and language development of the children. Language assessments were designed to measure language comprehension and language production. These assessments were conducted at assigned intervals during the study and measured the children’s ability to put words into sentences. The child’s intellectual development was also measured at 24 months.

The average scores of children in the study that were in the group that used Baby Sign Language were found to be higher than the control group who did not. By the age of twenty-four months, the signing children had a developmental advantage of three months over the non-signing children. By the time these signing children reached the age of thirty-six months, this advantage had increased dramatically from a three month developmental advantage to an equivalent twelve month advantage in their overall language skills and comprehension.

Since this research was conducted in 1989 there have been many families that use Baby Sign Language in their home. To date there hasn’t been a single study that has shown there to be any disadvantages from using Baby Sign Language. Many childcare centers are also using Baby Sign Language as part of a dedicated program.

Some parents may be concerned if they use Baby Sign Language with their children that it may delay their speech development. The results of the NIH funded study demonstrate quite clearly that this is not the case. Baby Sign Language facilitates communication between baby and parent earlier in life and is thought by some to be an essential step in the learning process. Baby Sign Language aids in the comprehension of words through actions that they understand. By providing a communication method to the baby earlier in life they understand the benefit of communication as they are rewarded with some control over their environment and their needs. This only leads on to a thirst for a more complicated language which is thought to be the reason that baby’s who sign with their parents speak earlier than those who do not.

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