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Should I Use Baby Sign?

I've seen so much buzz around baby sign lately, and I am absolutely here for it! I know there are often trends or popular ideas that are not totally research-based or helpful, but this is one that I can get behind. Let's talk all about baby sign!

*A disclaimer: For the purposes of this post, I'm speaking to parents of typically developing, hearing children. For those little ones with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities, and/ or hearing impairments, the research is a bit different. Please refer to your pediatrician or a Speech-Language Pathologist for individual advice.

What is baby sign?

Everyone will have a slightly different definition, but I include any gestures used to communicate words or ideas, especially those intended to be adapted for young children. A lot of these are based in American Sign Language (ASL), but they're not usually truly correct because sometimes our little ones' motor skills aren't developed enough to correctly make all hand shapes and motions.

Should I use baby sign? Why?

Yes! Why? First, let's look at the research. Now, there is actually not a ton of high-quality research on this subject. But considering the relatively low risk of adding sign to your verbal speech, I always recommend throwing it in. So what DOES the research say? The research IS showing that using baby sign improves parents' responsiveness to baby's interactions (hello, that's huge!) and that it does not delay spoken language development. What does it NOT say? It does not say that using sign helps your child acquire spoken words earlier. So signing babies and non-signing babies will likely start talking whenever they would've started talking. But, if your child has a way of communicating before that point, that's a win in my book!

Second, it's super easy to fit into your routine! Do you talk to your child? If the answer is yes, then you can also start using baby sign with them! I always recommend using verbal speech as you sign if verbal speech is the ultimate goal. Obviously you're not going to sign every word you say. Just learn a few here and there and use them to highlight the important words.

Third, it can alleviate some frustrations until your little one gets good at verbal speech. The motor movements for signs aren't nearly as tedious as the fine motor requirements for speech. For this reason, your child can start communicating some important ideas sooner once the understanding is there. And with just a few signs such as "more", "all done", "eat", and "milk", you've got a lot of their basic requests covered!

Will it delay my child's verbal speech development?

My own experience and the research both say NO. I have worked with some children with various disabilities who do end up preferring sign language over verbal language, but I have never seen a typically-developing child continue to use sign indefinitely. Again, remember to use verbal speech in conjunction with your signs always. That means actually saying the word as you sign it.

Where do I start?

Honestly, if I ever have a moment where a sign might be useful and I don't know it, I just google it! If it seems too hard for my baby to do, I change it. Remember, the point for the vast majority of parents is to reduce frustration and get your little one communicating. So the "accuracy" of the sign is not as relevant.

With that being said, the 5 signs I'd recommend starting with are: "more" (can use for "again" during play), "all done" (can be used for "stop" during play), "eat", "milk", and "help".

Once you've learned those, find ways to fit them into your routine. Do one at a time. Maybe try not giving your child a full serving at a meal and showing them "more" when you give them more. Every time your child drops (or throws!) something, say and sign "help" before you pick it up. Right before you set your child in their high chair, tell them it's time to "eat". As you give your baby the bottle, tell them they're drinking "milk".

We don't want to expect much from the child for the first while. We're talking one to several months. And then you can take their hands and help them if you want. Or just continue modeling.

When should I start?

It's never too early to start signing in addition to your verbal speech! I notice that most babies actually start caring/ watching around 4-6 months. If your little one isn't using many words, regardless of their age, baby sign would be a great tool to start using!

When will my child catch on?

This really depends on the child, how long you've been modeling signs, and the age of the child. Based on my experience, if you start really young (around 4-6 months), you can probably expect to see your child using signs independently around 8-12 months.

What are some helpful resources?

While I hope that this post has been useful in helping answer some general questions from the perspective of a Speech-Language Pathologist, I recognize that there are people whose entire purpose is to educate on baby sign. If this is something you'd like to get a little more help with for your family, I really love Sign 'n Grow for really parent-friendly information and pacing. And of course, Signing Time and their YouTube videos are the OGs in this realm.


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