30 years ago it was difficult to find research based on language development with hearing children, it was mainly all based on children with hearing difficulties, until such a time as the likes of Joseph Garcia, Susan Goodwyn and Linda Acredolo (see gurus of babysigning section) moved the research forward by looking into the impact of gesturing signs as a way to evoke communication early in the very young.
At this point you can be completely forgiven for thinking, But why does baby signing work? How will this make my baby more happy and less frustrated? How can signing with my baby really promote early speech?
Here is where a basic understanding of child development comes in handy – your baby cannot speak until they are capable of coordinating muscles in their mouth, tongue and larynx which is usually mastered around the age of 12 months thus you begin to notice the odd word in amongst the beautiful gabble chatter your baby makes. To be able to string words together requires the use of more muscles that again comes with age and development and is usually noticed around 18-20 months. But just because your little one cannot speak it does not mean they are not starting to take notice of the world around them and making sense of it.
Parents can often be oblivious to the developmental milestones their baby is making because it can be so subtle until speech begins. A young baby learns quickly how to identify their needs, through crying or by finding other ways to express themselves. Your little one will look to you to comment on what they are seeing; people, objects, places. You, their mummy or daddy are in the right place to show them the word and sign for what it is that is interesting them. Your little one learns the association of the word and gesture, especially the more times the sign is repeated. By the time your baby has reached 12 months and their muscles in their mouth are developed enough to start speech they can already be advanced in their understanding of the world around them and the words that are needed to describe it.
It is well recognized that a baby has a different cry for hunger, pain, tiredness, fear and boredom so it makes sense that your little one is understanding the world around them. Your baby will take signals from you, if you are smiling and engaging with them they will smile and giggle back and watch you for further clues. The babbling takes on a conversational pitch to it, and you may notice pauses where your baby is looking for you to talk back to them.
This pause in babbling is your little one telling you that they are starting to learn a connection between signs and words with meanings. Your baby is learning a daily routine a nd recognizes certain patterns – like nap time is followed by a nappy change and then milk. Once this connection is made between an action and a gesture an important milestone in your baby’s language development has been made. A connection like this can be expected to be made around 4 or 5 months of age, so by the time your little one is around 9 to 10 months they are fully able to understand between the word and sign and the cat that has just gone whizzing past them. Your baby now possess the ability to sign but is still unable to clearly articulate the word.
Whilst this speech development is being made so is your child’s physical development and gross motor skills, your baby of around 7 to 8 months is able to reach out and grab a toy that interests them and touch things to get an idea of texture and feel. Your baby has made the connection between a word with sign and an object and because they have control over their hands they can use their hands to copy the signs you have been showing them long before they find their voice to clearly articulate the word.
As described in the things to know section, it is important to remember that not all babies will sign every word all the time, some take to it, others take it on board and just talk early what is good to remember is that by the time your little one reaches 16 months of age they will have now fully formed their vocal chords, be able to understand and perhaps sign back many signs and by the time they are 20 months you will start to hear words being strung together in tiny sentences; ‘where shoes’, ‘why mummy’, ‘more drink please’.
If a well known 3 year old is anything to go by, by the time your little one reaches the age of two you might be asking for ear plugs!
As you have read, most of the research that has been conducted in baby signing has been in the USA, and most of that research was carried out nearly 30 years ago. This gap in current evidence is about to be rectified by the work of Kirk and Pine from the University of Herfordshire. They are the first to conduct a randomized control trial of the effects of using baby signing on language development by following 40 infants from 8 mths of age up until 20 months. Interestingly the findings are a change to the current held belief that gesturing and signing with babies accelerates language development. They found those babies who were exposed to signing did not differ from the control groups on language outcomes.
Here is a good place to discuss the myth that ‘signing with my baby will delay their speech’. The reason there is so much to read in this section is because of the amount of work that has been done into researching babysigning. This as well as the stories that you hear from hundreds of parents that have done it before help to expel this myth quickly. Remember the signs are not replacing words because you are saying the word aloud clearly and directly at your baby while you make the sign. Baby signing is enhancing and supporting language development. So much so that more recent research carried out in the UK is showing that children starting pre-school who have not been signing with their parents are behind in their language, speech and social development compared to those that have been baby signing.
Babysigning is being supported by many organizations out there, which again help to provide support for babysigning with your little one. You may have heard of the National Literacy Trust that runs the Talk To Your Baby Campaign. Just a quick glance at their website and evidence jumps out at you on how talking and interacting with your baby from birth upwards is essential in helping to develop good communicators that will do well and lead happy fulfilled lives.
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