Will teaching my baby to sign delay his speech?

Baby Sign Language has been growing in popularity in recent years. For some parents, it’s a fantastic way to improve their baby’s communication skills while they are still preverbal. Other parents have serious concerns about the impacts of Baby Sign Language. They worry that encouraging their child to use sign language will take away from their practice on verbal speech, potentially causing delays in their verbal development.


What Is Baby Sign Language?

Baby Sign Language is a very modified and simplified version of American Sign Language. As parents teach their child Baby Sign Language, they introduce some easy hand signs for common needs or wants that a baby might want to communicate with their parent or caregiver.

Common signs used in Baby Sign Language include things like “milk,” “hungry,” “all done,” “more,” “pacifier,” “poop,” or “please.” Having children be able to express these needs can make things much easier for caregivers, who are no longer left with the task of guessing what it is that the baby is wanting when they cry.

Importantly, Baby Sign Language is not the same thing as American Sign Language. Baby Sign Language is highly simplified and is used with the same grammatical structure as spoken English. Baby Sign Language also is generally phased out of a child’s communication as they adopt spoken language since they are quickly able to communicate much more nuance in spoken language than in the simplified structure of Baby Sign.

How do you use Baby Sign Language?

Baby Sign Language starts off very simply. Parents start by introducing between one and three easy signs to their baby. It’s best to start off with signs that are highly motivating for children – a baby who’s very attached to their bottles might pick up on the “milk” sign faster, for example.

Parents introduce signs by signing along while speaking. Parents can carefully repeat the words several times while showing the baby the sign, slowly repeating the movement and making sure that the baby has seen them sign it while hearing the word aloud.

After babies have been firmly introduced to their sign, parents can start to encourage the baby to use it on their own. If the child is indicating their want for a bottle, for example, parents can guide their hands to show the “milk” sign before giving it to the baby. Repeating the sign slowly and carefully each time will build comprehension over time. Before you know it, baby will be signing all on their own!

Once the baby has started mastering the first few signs, you can start introducing new ones slowly. It’s important to let them understand each sign before introducing new ones or they may become overwhelmed and confused. However, once they understand signs as a concept, they’ll be much faster at adopting new ones.

The key to introducing Baby Sign Language is firstly to make sure that the signs are not replacing the spoken language that a caregiver uses to communicate. Showing the baby their signs should be in addition to speaking aloud to them, not replacing it. Secondly, signs should be consistent – they should be used every time that concept is mentioned in conversation with the baby, not only every once in a while.

What are the effects of teaching Baby Sign Language?

Despite common concerns, Baby Sign Language does not delay spoken language development when used correctly. In fact, babies who learn Baby Sign Language are more likely to have improved short-term language development, although these skills rarely translate to long-term improvements in speech later in life.

One of the benefits of Baby Sign Language is that babies have a chance to practice engaging in back-and-forth conversations. This is a critical skill that non-signing babies don’t get a chance to practice until they’re already speaking at least some words. Not only is this a great way to build conversational skills, but it’s also a great social engagement. Baby Sign Language is a great way to help babies build strong social bonds with their parents, teachers, siblings, and friends before they can engage in typical conversation.

Baby Sign Language also gives children a chance to practice combining words together to create phrases or sentences. Once a child has learned “more,” “milk,” and “please,” it’s easy enough to practice putting those together into two or three-word phrases. Combining these concepts into full communication statements is another incredible communication skill that most babies don’t have a chance to practice until they’re already speaking words.

Because of these skill-building opportunities, children who sign often wind up building stronger verbal skills once they do start talking. Because of the practice, they’ve already received, they’re much more comfortable conversing and communicating ideas than their non-signing peers.

Are there any downsides to using Baby Sign Language?

The main downside that people see from using Baby Sign Language is from using it incorrectly. When parents use sign language as a replacement for language, they deprive their children of their usual exposure to spoken language. Lots of exposure to spoken language is a critical skill for healthy verbal development.

The other frustration that parents experience with sign language is that often babies have a difficult time making their signs clear. Because their fine motor skills in their fingers and hands are still early in development, it can be a challenge for them to sign. Even with the very simplified signs of Baby Sign Language, it can still be possible for a baby to have a hard time communicating their sign. This can lead to frustration on both the parent’s and child’s part as breakdowns in communication persist.

Here is a very cute video of a 12-months-old using sign:


Last Updated on September 19, 2021