Friday, March 25, 2011

Reader Question: Baby Signs

My son is 11 months and has a trach. We are going to start sign language; do you have any suggestion as to what kind of program to start him with?
I've got lots of suggestions about using sign language with babies and toddlers! :) First things first, though, let's take a step back and look at why so many speech-language therapists recommend using signs with children, and why so many parents are doing so these days. Is it just a fashionable trend? Probably, in part. But there is a method behind the madness. 
We speech therapists have been using sign language with infants and toddlers for years.  We are especially likely to do this if a child's speech lags behind his desire to communicate.  When this happens, children are prone to frustration because they have much more to express than they are able to say.  Sign language gives them a way to communicate even if they don't yet have verbal words, and it helps the language part of their brain keep developing while we work to get the speech part to catch up.  Because sign language carries these advantages, we often recommend the use of sign language with children who are late talkers, those who are having significant difficulty with speech--such as those with apraxia of speech--or those who have a diagnosis such as Down Syndrome, where speech is often later developing. Most recently, parents of all kinds of young children are learning the power of using sign language with their toddlers, whether or not their child's speech is delayed.
Many parents, though, have concerns about sign language. They worry that if their child is taught sign language, she will then become reliant on sign language to communicate and won't develop verbal speech.  This is, in fact, the number one reservation that I hear parents voice about using signs with their toddler.  The good news is this: In my 10 years of working as a pediatric speech therapist, I have never seen this happen. What's more, a small NIH funded study  found that using sign language with toddlers led to more advanced language in toddlers and preschoolers.  Use of sign language as a toddler was also found to be related to a higher IQ at the end of second grade (despite the fact, of course, that the parents had long since stopped signing with their children).  Additional, smaller studies have also shown that using sign language along with verbal speech helps young children learn more words, more quickly, than using verbal speech alone. 
Why does this happen? Probably for a few different reasons. First, toddlers are driven to imitate, and it is often easiest to tap into their desire to imitate when we pair our actions with our words. Actions last longer than words do.  Think about how quickly a spoken word comes and goes. Believe it or not, it lasts for less than a second. An action, though, can last longer. You can slow it down, giving your toddler a chance to really see what's going on.  What's more, the visual part of our brain is thought to develop more quickly than the auditory part of our brain, so your toddler is likely to respond more strongly and more consistently to what he  sees as compared to what he hears.  All in all, pairing actions and sounds together gives your toddler more clues about what he's supposed to do.  
The other advantage to using sign language is that, if your child will let you, you can help him do the signs by gently taking his hands and guiding him through the motions. Obviously, you can't take his mouth and get it to produce words; signing gives you an alternate way to physically help your child learn to communicate.  When he then starts to use that sign on his own, he's learned a very powerful message: he has control over his world and he can get what he wants through communication.  Once kids get the idea that communication pays off for them, they start to communicate more and more with those around them.  At first, they may continue to use sign language, but eventually they will start to use the words along with the signs. Then, as verbal speech becomes more efficient (and it will-- moving your mouth takes much less energy than moving your arms), they will gradually drop out the signs and move over into the world of verbal speech completely.  
Having said all that, I'll return to the question at hand: what sign language system is best for working with young children?  My answer is simple: None. None is best.  If you are using sign language as a bridge to verbal communication, it simply doesn't matter what sign system you choose to use.  You could even make up your own signs! In fact, that's what those parents in the NIH study did-- they were taught to communicate with their child through specific gestures that had meaning to them and their child.  The important part of using signs with your child is not what specific sign system you use, but rather the consistency with which the adults in your child's environment use those signs. 
If you want to explore some formal signs to use with your little one, a great (free!) place to find some is over at the sign language dictionary at Baby Sign  The dictionary has videos of a wide variety of signs that you might want to use with your toddler.  Just don't get too hung up on the formality of how you do the sign. This is one place in life where perfection is most definitely not required.
Want to learn more about baby signs?
Find out How To Select Signs To Use With Your Child
Find out How To Teach Your Child Signs


  1. Wow, that's very interesting info. Thanks.

  2. With my son, we bought a book to teach us signs and then we were able to use them with him. He caught on and it helped. We tried the same thing with my daughter, but it didn't stick. She didn't understand that we were talking with our hands. Then we bought the first Baby Signing Time video and because it was to music, which she loved, she got it. In that first viewing, we literally saw the lightbulb go off in her head. By the end, she was able to sign "more" and kept asking for more. We were so grateful because we could then teach her signs. It just took us finding the correct tool for her. Since she was such a late talker, it helped her communicate with us. Until she was 2.5, her primary communication was signing. Now she talks non-stop, but if she really wants something, she will sign as she talks.

  3. Wonderful information for families in need of learning more about baby sign language. Recently our local high school district offered American Sign Language to their students as an alternative to their foreign language requirement. Kudos to them for their forward thinking in raising students awareness of the hearing impaired in our society.

    Happy Mom Loop Friday!

  4. Amazing. Hats off to those who teach and my thoughts to all those who are in need.

    Happy Mom Loop Friday!

  5. We did a little signing. I wish we had done more.

  6. I only have my kids sign a few words and only before they are a year or so and encourage them to talk... I've had super early talkers (3 word sentences at 1 year) and have friends who did sign and had late talkers... I can see how signing helps non-verbal kids express stuff, and if future kiddos are non-verbal or late verbal I will definitely look into it.

    Awesome that you adopted from ET. I'd love to hear about your experience and get tips/words of wisdom from you - would it be okay if I started a thread on Momloop?

  7. I taught a few basic signs to my daughters when they were babies, but I was {almost} disappointed that they learned to talk so quickly that using sign didn't last long! I didn't realize that one study showed sign may help with language development at that age!

  8. We were out and saw a baby signing with his parents the other day. I think it's great. Wish we had known to do this with my son when he was younger. He had a lot of speech developement problems and so many temper tantrums were from not being able to communicate and frustration. Signing would have been a lifesaver!

  9. I'm so glad I found you through the blog hop! We used sign language with my twins (born at 31 weeks) and saw their language skills flourish when we had worried they might lag due to the prematurity. I'm not working on it with my daughter.

    I'm a follower here, and I've liked you on FB. Great work - great resource!

    I've stumbled you and would love you to stumble me back at

    Thank you~
    Reading with Joey

  10. Eeek! I meant "I'm NOW working on sign language with my daughter." :-)

    Need. More. Coffee.

  11. Hi. I'm here from Stumble Tumble Tuesday ( )

    What a great post. I wish I'd known about signing earlier. Most of my kids are high-functioning autistic. Language and speech delays are one of the few early symptoms. We did some signing with my younger children and it helped. I'm glad people like you are getting the word out.

  12. Such knowledge you have...

    Stumbled you, please stumble me back at :

    Also, we have a great giveaway going on right now that you may want to consider entering. $120 Urban Tool eReader Gadget slotBar Bag Giveaway! 2 Winners! Check it out on the right hand sidebar

  13. Great information.

    I stumbled you.

    My post is

  14. Excellent post. I signed with both of my kids and I think it was one of the best choices I ever made.

    Stumbled you. Here's a link to my post:

  15. Thanks for all the comments! It's so fun to hear the stories from others who have used signs. :) I really do think signs can be very powerful in helping young nonverbal children-- I'll agree that they can reduce tantrums, for sure! Happy Signing!

  16. Love your posts about child communication!

    Stumbled and hope to see you again this week at Stumble Tumble Tuesday.