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Baby Signs:

by Kris Rawlinson,
What is "Baby Signs?"
Baby Signs is a program offered to teach hearing babies how to use signs before they can use spoken words. It was created through two decades of research by Linda Acredolo, a doctor in Psychology, and Susan Goodwyn, a doctor in both Psychology and Child Development). This long-term study, funded by the National Institute of Health, demonstrated language, affective, and cognitive benefits of baby signing. Baby Signs is one of many different companies offering to teach parents how to sign with their babies, however it differs in that it does not use strictly ASL.

What is Baby Signs Comprised of?
Baby Signs began in 1982, when Drs. Goodwyn and Acredolo “discovered” that pre-verbal babies were already using gestures to communicate. Their program capitalized on those common infant-created communicative gestures and added a complete repertoire of signs made up by parents of babies. The Baby Signs repertoire also included the most simple, baby-friendly American Sign Language (ASL) signs. The signs were chosen based on ease of use for babies and on linguistic functionality. Some people criticize this approach because it is not true ASL. However, I agree with the doctors’ quip that since Baby Signs is to be used in a small period of time until the babies start to verbalize, it is better to be simplified. Its intention is to have the highest communicative benefit. With babies’ limited motor skills, they can learn more words if they use simplified, baby-user-friendly gestures.

Research-Backed Rewards of the program
Research using FMRIs shows that signing uses the same part of the brain as does talking. Thus, it would make sense that signing would ‘jumpstart’ stimulation of the language zone. In “Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development,” the doctors evaluated “the effect on verbal language development of purposefully encouraging hearing infants to use simple gestures as symbols for objects, requests, and conditions.”

The Study
The study included 140 babies, who were 11 months old when they began participating. They were assigned to a Baby Signs group or a non-Bay Signs 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. Thus, other factors that could contribute to cognitive and language development were ruled out. The babies were assessed a handful of times at varying ages from 11 months to 36 months, and again at age 8. This allowed them to compare the 2 groups at different points of important language milestones (such as first word around 12 months, combining words at 16 months etc).

The benefits of signing were clear. At 24 months, the signing babies had a 3 month verbal language advantage on the non-signing babies. At 36 months, they had an 11 month advantage. At 8 years, the signing babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ. Thus, signing with your baby helps them develop both language and cognitive skills!

Speech Language Pathologist Perspective
As a student of speech and language pathology, the results make sense. In our program, we are schooled in the acquisition of language. According to Jean Piaget, by 8-12 months of age, infants are able to grasp “object permanence,” where they develop the ability to “mentally represent objects when objects can no longer be seen.” (McLaughlin). Symbolic representation is a prerequisite to language because before they develop this awareness, they cannot understand that words are symbolic. So, infants develop this awareness around 8-12 months, and cognitively, have the ability for language. However, their capacity is limited since their speech mechanism and motor skills are still developing. Thus, introducing signs to infants at this stage allows them to meaningfully express themselves months and months before they can talk.

This is powerful! Through use, these infants learn what a valuable social tool language, which stimulates its growth even more. Furthermore, they learn to establish and maintain joint attention, a prerequisite for conversation and learning. Finally, signing generates more parental verbal contingencies (comments contingent on infant’s object of interest). Since parents are commenting on the infant’s topic of interest, the infant is more likely to absorb the information. Additionally, these infants are bombarded with more language, which, per John Locke, is a prerequisite to generating language. He says that babies need to accumulate to a certain number of words before they can start generating language output. So, since signing babies have more language bombardment it would follow that their language development would be more advanced.

Goodwyn, S, Acredolo, L, & Brown C.A. (2000). Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development. In Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, Vol 24 (pp. 81-103). California State University, Stanislaus, San Diego State University, and University of California, Davis. (

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. (

McLaughlin, Scott. Introduction to Language Development, Singular Publishing Group: London, 1998.

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