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Baby Signing - does it delay speech?

This post may be a little controversial (and I welcome your feedback) but I really don't agree with the concept of ?baby signing? which has become very fashionable these days. This is for one reason only - I genuinely think it delays children's speech development.

Years ago, when I first started Mini Ps, I spent a few minutes of each class on baby signing. After a while, I started to realise that the children who were most proficient in signing were often those who were least advanced in speaking. The crunch came when one of the Mums said to me that she'd much prefer me to be accelerating her child's speech through vocal exercises than trying to teach her child alternative means of communication. I did some more research, compared it with my own experience and dropped it from the curriculum.

The idea behind baby signing is that it helps parents to understand their needs before they can speak for themselves. So, if a baby is hungry, they make a sign for milk etc. And, in fairness, that does sound like a good idea because our control over our hands develops well before our ability to speak.

But what can happen is that children who sign become so used to using sign to express themselves that they don't feel the need to talk and therefore their speech develops much later.

Baby signers claim that you no longer need to guess if your child is hungry, hot, cold or has a wet nappy, but my experience is that most parents can tell their children's needs at that age anyway - if only by the tone of their cries.

Yesterday, one of our teachers, who is also a part time nanny for an 18 month old girl, came to speak to me. She and the parents are really concerned because the little girl doesn't have any words at all. Ultimately, children all develop at different times, so I reassured her that this wasn't a cause for concern, but my first question was ?Does she sign?? And the answer was ?Yes, really well?.

Despite our online age of texting, tweeting and emailing, speaking is still our main form of communication and we should be nurturing this from an early age. As a result, I'm not a fan of anything that delays or impairs the ability or desire to speak in children.

That said, any class that gets children together with their parents is always a good thing. I'd be really keen to hear your thoughts. And feel free to disagree!

Leave a comment

    From Trish Cummings
    Cards on the table here - I'm a babysigning teacher!

    The main issue that I think your article doesn't address (and perhaps the parents who don't "get" the point of babysigning are coming from the same perspective) is that babysigning is ALL ABOUT SPEECH DEVELOPMENT for neurotypical babies.

    No one EVER leaves a class of mine without being absolutely clear that signs must ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS be linked to the spoken word (and ideally, the relevant experience). Otherwise, how on earth COULD a child connect gesture and verbal communications?!

    It is a golden rule for all babysigners to ALWAYS SAY WHAT THEY SIGN.

    Babies' brains do not distinguish between verbal and gestural communication/language - to them, it is ALL language. Just as bilingual babies do not consciously think "Oh - now I must think in French" etc..

    There is also research that demonstrates that the brain does not distinguish between language and gesture. Deaf, signing stroke patients who have not lost any motor skills are commonly reported as unable to sign if the language areas of the brain are those affected by the stroke - even if they can still dress themselves, drive, cook, etc.. When it comes to signing, they are unable to do so - just like verbal stroke victims are unable to speak if the language centres are damaged.

    I hope this clears up some confusion. To be honest, it sounds like the mum who you quote was anxious about speech development from her own perspective and not seeing the situation from her child's perspective. Signing is dropped as soon as the child is confident that the adults understand what he/she is saying. It's up to the adults to do the understanding ....!
    From Sian
    My daughter went to baby signing classes from about 6 months old. She loved them, however, she was so advanced with her speech that she often knew and said the words ahead of the signs. She spoke her first words well before her first birthday and was speaking in sentences by the age of 16 months and now, at the age of 4 years, is still noticeably ahead of many of her peers in terms of her vocabulary and sentence structure. Signing clearly didn't hinder her - in fact, I always thought it had given her speech a headstart because it made me more conscious of saying words as I signed to her - which I might not have done with such frequency had we not been to the classes.
    From Leah
    The thing is that all the actual peer-reviewed research (including longitudinal studies conducted over many years) seems to disagree with you (if anything, babies who have been signed with are slightly ahead of their peers in speech).

    I think you have the cause and effect the wrong way round; it makes sense that the least advanced talkers would have the most signs -- they have more need of the signs *because* they are less advanced in spoken language. It doesn't mean that the fact they sign is causing the relative lack of speech.

    The 18 month old you mention almost certainly wouldn't be speaking more extensively if she couldn't sign. She'd just be still not speaking but *also* be unable to communicate in any other way, which wouldn't benefit her or her family.

    Yes, you can tell whether a small child is hungry, hot, cold or has a wet nappy without the need for signing. But can you tell from the tone of his cry whether he fancies a biscuit or would prefer a yoghurt, or maybe a banana? Can you tell that she's thinking about Daddy, who's gone on an aeroplane to India for work? Can you tell the difference between a sore tummy and a sore ear from the tone of his cry? Can you tell that the reason she's crying isn't just generalised boredom or tiredness but specifically that she wants to go home? These are all real conversations that real people have with real signing babies under 18 months; their internal life is far richer than their physical ability to speak allows them to share.
    From michelle
    I can only presume it is different for each child but my daughter is very advanced with her speech and she went to sign classes. She even remembered the sign for home the other day and she is 3. She never became frustrated as she was always able to express herself very well and I think the key is to always say the word with the sign. Even if my daughter signed, I would always say the word back to her. She got such an enthusiastic response when she tried the words that she soon used them instead of the signs. I would spend a lot of time showing her how to move her mouth to make the word understood. I can only comment on my own child as I do not believe we can say something is good for 'all children' its a bit like saying all men are this or all women are that. They are individuals and some may respond well to signing and other may not but it may be worth looking at how often the words are used with the sign. If they ask for milk with a sign and get the milk from the sign alone then they are being treated for using the sign alone. I hope this helps and gives you a different point of view.
    From Marie
    My eldest signed a lot from 9 months and was combining signs into mini sentences, e.g. more please not much later. She learned to speak well ahead of most of peers in really fluent sentences and the only trouble was she wouldn't stop talking - she's still much the same now at 7! My younger two weren't so interested in signing or communicating in general and talked later, probably more in line with what you would expect, so from my experiences, it was really positive and actually aided her speech.
    Also, I think that we need to look at speech as just one part of communication, especially as children all learn to talk at different rates anyway. Signers who talk later, may have done so anyway and at least they are communicating without frustration which they might not be if they hadn't signed.
    From Jo
    I only used 4 signs milk, more, again and all gone. They were useful to get around frustration at meal times and in the park etc. Don't believe such a limited number of signs had any effect either way on my kids talking. But they were useful for few months
    From Carrie
    I am a mum who started taking my daughter to baby signing classes when she was about 9 months but at home started with some basic signs at around 4 months. She was a very early speaker and most of if not all of her first words were the words she was signing. She's 4 now and is putting together 3 letter words (writing them and reading them). Is this down to baby signing? Baby signing advocates would say YES and others would say "maybe?". I'm pregnant with my second child now and will do it again. I loved watching my daughter see pictures of my mother who lives in the States and sign "Nana" and then when we went to visit her as soon as she saw her started signing "Nana" and eventually signed along with saying "nnnnn nnnn" and then dropped the signing and just said "Nana".
    From :Halcro
    Lucy, I suspect that you may be right in the case of normal babies. It is pretty easy for a parent to work out what a child needs/wants generally. If the child is very slow in speaking however, signing may be a help.

    My younger son who is autistic didn't speak until he was about 5 years old, and it was only when we were told about Makaton signing along with picture cards that speech magically came into his life. That's an extreme case.

    Why would anyone want to miss out on the normal joys of hearing a child say his/her first words? Personally this sounds as if it is for parents who are over-aspirational; for their child's abilities to be a reflection of their own wonderful parenting skills. That child is in for a hard childhood! I'm with you. Leave the signing alone and let the kids get on with it!
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