Hands Across America. Is baby sign language an essential or a rip-off?

When she was seven months old, my husband and I seriously considered enrolling our daughter, Beatrice, who has no hearing impairment, in baby sign language class. Oh, we did have some doubts: If Beatrice was busy learning how to fold and pleat her fingers into signing gestures, wouldn’t that take time and attention away from learning to speak? Wouldn’t being able to communicate through signs remove any incentive to talk? But our misgivings were brushed aside by the baby signing professionals and their acolytes. Signing is like crawling, they explained. Just as crawling gives your baby that taste of movement that motivates her to walk, signing inspires the voiceless communicator to learn how to verbalize. 

Not only do signing babies speak earlier, but research indicates they have higher IQ scores, by an average of twelve points, at age eight, they pointed out.

Well, gosh. How do you say no to that?

Still, the classes were expensive. Plus, it would take time away from work in order for us to commute to wherever it was that baby signers convened; just the thought of adding one more thing to our pittance of “time off” made me weary. On top of everything, we would have to teach the babysitter to sign too, and when would we ever find the time to do that?

I can drive myself nuts trying to weigh the pros, cons and costs of the overwhelming options. No matter what I do, someone else seems to be doing enviably more or improbably less, and either way, their child and family seem all the better for it.

Baby signing – for babies who can hear perfectly well – has become something of an epidemic. Classes are taught everywhere – from community centers to music schools to Y’s to prenatal yoga centers. Dozens of books (including a Complete Idiot’s Guide to Baby Sign Language), videos, DVDs and workshops from companies like KinderSigns purport to teach the method to parents eager to foster early language skills in their infants. Baby signing has become so well established that it was featured in Meet the Fockers, in which Robert De Niro’s character teaches his grandson to sign to comedic effect.

Yet the theory behind baby signing is quite serious. Because gross motor skills develop before the fine motor skills involved in phonetic and articulatory actions (moving tongues and mouths in the proper way to create speech), signing advocates say babies can be taught to communicate with their hands before they are physically capable of articulating thoughts. Any parent can vouch for the fact that babies seem to understand more than they can say. Who doesn’t want to know what’s going on inside her often inscrutable infant’s head?

The popularity of baby signing can be largely attributed to the efforts of the psychologists Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, cofounders of the Baby Signs Institute. In 1982, Acredolo taught her twelve-month-old daughter Katie how to sign, and together with Goodwyn, one of her graduate students at the time, she published a paper on how they fostered Katie’s burgeoning skills. “I should say that Katie taught us,” Acredolo told me. “She was so frustrated that she couldn’t talk, she started using gestures. She spontaneously started making up signs.” Katie would point to a rose bush and sniff. She would rub her fingers together to indicate the word spider. And so on.

In 1996, Acredolo and Goodwyn published their first book, Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, which sold more than half a million copies. Baby Signs produced a burst of publicity as Acredolo and Goodwyn hit Oprah, the Today Show, Dateline NBC, 20/20, and Good Morning America and told their story to Newsweek and Parents magazine. By 2005, the Baby Signs Institute had trained seven hundred teachers. A series of books, DVDs, baby sign charts, flash cards, and even a puppet dubbed “BeeBo the Baby Signs Bear” followed. According to the Baby Signs Institute, teaching a baby to sign has remarkable emotional and social benefits: reducing tears, tantrums, and frustration; allowing babies to share their worlds; increasing respect for babies; strengthening the parent-infant bond; and boosting self-esteem and self-confidence – all things that parents, even those who aren’t angling for a minigenius, are keen to encourage.

Moreover, it purports that signing makes learning to talk easier and stimulates intellectual development.

“When babies are using signs, they pay more attention to what’s going on around them in terms of language,” explained Susan Goodwyn. “They’re stimulating the language portion of the brain.” To back up these claims, Acredolo and Goodwyn conducted a long-term study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, of 140 families. The results were astonishing. Babies taught to sign at eleven months tested eleven months ahead of other babies in terms of vocabulary and linguistic ability by age three. At age eight, signing babies scored higher on IQ tests than the control group. “You can increase your baby’s IQ score, that’s for sure,” Goodwyn assured me. “And you increase your child’s verbal development, which pays off in school.”

Gesturing has been proven in lab studies to be a positive force for children who have developmental difficulties, and needless to say, it is crucial for hearing-impaired children. Still, that doesn’t mean it benefits everyone. In 2005, researchers at the universities of Ottawa and Waterloo published a paper titled “Teaching Gestural Signs to Infants to Advance Child Development: A Review of the Evidence,” which examined the claims made by baby-signing advocates. The scientists reviewed more than 1,200 studies and found that only ten actually measured objective outcomes in teaching signing as compared with groups of hearing babies. As for Acredolo and Goodwyn’s celebrated research, the team uncovered several methodological problems.

According to one of the paper’s authors, Cyne Johnston, Acredolo and Goodwyn failed to explain the methodology used to select and group their study’s children. It may be, for example, that the parents in the baby-signing group were volunteers who were already highly motivated, educated, and involved, and thus likely to foster language development in their babies with or without signing classes. In addition to the baby-signing test group, there were two control groups: one in which parents received training to encourage verbal language skills with their babies; the other in which there was no intervention at all. But Acredolo and Goodwyn followed up with only one of the control groups – the babies with no intervention – which means that no long-term comparisons can be made between the parents who were trained to encourage spoken language and the parents who were trained to use sign language. It is possible that the verbally trained babies did just as well with language acquisition and IQ as the signing children, but the research doesn’t say. Furthermore, the attrition rate in the follow-up study was as high as 40 percent. “When there’s a high attrition rate, you wonder what happened to the other children and whether they were intrinsically different from the subjects they could find,” Johnston told me.

The results were also inconsistent. One early study measured an improvement in language at the very beginning of the training, but by the time the babies reached two years of age the advantages linked to signing had disappeared. The researchers were unable to establish any of the other benefits attributed to baby signing, finding no evidence of improved emotional development, cognitive development, or parent-child bonding; indeed, these areas weren’t even explored in the studies. Moreover, the research focused on signing taught by Baby Signs-trained parents. Today, a slew of classes unaffiliated with the institute as well as piles of videos and DVDs claim to teach babies signing. No one has studied the effectiveness of these alternatives.

It’s not that baby signing is bad for kids; it simply may not be beneficial in the way parents are led to believe. Nor is it clear that the benefits correlated with signing are necessarily caused by signing. Parents who sign to their children are also talking to them – and no study can prove that talking alone didn’t lead to later verbal advances. The 2005 report urged caution: “Parents can be stressed by the challenges of meeting demands of work, caring for a young child, and other family and personal obligations, and experience guilt if they feel they are not doing everything recommended by infancy specialists and the infancy industry,” the authors wrote. “Secondly, the normal course of child development may be challenged by efforts towards earlier and greater developmental achievements.

The short prelingual period of the child’s life is concomitant with other naturally occurring milestones in gross motor and in nonverbal social development.”

In other words, training babies to communicate using signs may disrupt important routes and patterns of development for other skills and processes besides language. Humans are not, after all, designed to be on a fast-track singular path to speech.

For now, the evidence doesn’t weigh definitively for or against. “Our final recommendation for parents was that they should find activities that they enjoy with their child and spend one-on-one time sharing language with their baby,” the report notes. “If for one family, it’s sign language that comes naturally to them and stimulates their language interactions then that’s fine for that family. For other parents, the activity might be reading.”

The most reassuring thing you can say to parents about signing is that it’s just not necessary. But in our consumer parenting culture, parents have been told that buying into a package or program is smarter than what one could do on one’s own, for free.

Adapted from the Book PARENTING, INC. by Pamela Paul. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.. Copyright (c) 2008 by Pamela Paul. All rights reserved.”

Photo Credit: “Eat” by Shannon Flores

Article Posted 10 years Ago

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