Baby signing can be an enjoyable activity but parents should keep in mind that it will not necessarily benefit the language development of children from homes with good levels of interaction.
Dr Liz Kirk
Researchers from the University of Hertfordshire have found no evidence to support claims that signing with babies accelerates language development. However, the team, whose study has been published in the journal Child Development
, did find that mothers using this system were more responsive to their infants’ non-verbal cues, and more likely to view their baby as an individual with its own mind.
Baby signing was developed during the 1990s by Drs Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn in the United States. Thousands of families across the United Kingdom now attend baby signing classes. Parents are able to use the system as a non-verbal tool to communicate with their infants in the months before they learn to speak. Baby signing has been said to improve bonding between mother and child, accelerate the language development of infants and increase their vocabulary. However, the latest study found little evidence to corroborate the latter two of these claims.
In order to learn more about the merits and demerits of baby signing, I spoke to the study’s lead author Dr Liz Kirk from the University of Hertfordshire's School of Psychology. I began by asking Dr Kirk from what age babies are capable of employing this non-verbal method of communication.
"Some of the commercial classes that are available work with babies from a very young age; in some cases, when they are only a couple of months old," she explained. "Babies usually become capable of using signs when they are between eight and ten months of age, although there have been some reports of children signing earlier than this. It is interesting to note that babies who don’t attend signing classes usually start to point at ten months of age.This is usually the age at which babies become capable of performing specific hand movements to signify different meanings. Pointing is typically the first gesture that infants use to communicate with their parents."
The Hertfordshire-based psychologists worked with 40 mother-baby pairs. All of the infants were eight months old when the study began. The team randomly allocated each pair to either a ‘gesture’ or ‘no gesture’ condition before systematically tracking the development of the babies over a twelve-month period. Whilst Dr Kirk and her colleagues found no evidence to suggest that baby signing accelerates language development amongst the general cohort of infants, the method did prove linguistically useful in a small number of cases.
"Some of the boys who scored lower in language ability tests at the beginning of the study did benefit from baby signing," said Dr Kirk. "The language development of this particular group appeared to benefit from signing. In other research, we have also worked with some children from low-income families. These children have a statistically higher chance of exhibiting slower language development because of the quality of interaction that they have with their parents. In very basic terms, the language development of children from families with low socio-economic statuses develops at a slower rate because they tend to be spoken to less. I have found that signing tends to benefit the language development of babies from such families. Essentially, we found that baby signing can be linguistically beneficial in certain instances where there is room for improvement."
Although the researchers found no evidence to support the claim that baby signing is generally beneficial to the language development of babies, they did identify other benefits that can result from the approach.
"We looked in real, fine-grained detail at what was happening between mums and babies when they were interacting with one another," said Dr Kirk. "We filmed them at play in familiar environments for ten-minute periods throughout the year of our study. We were especially interested in behaviours related to maternal mind-mindedness, which is a term used to describe the mother’s proclivity to treat her child as a sentient being. We discovered that mums who had been signing with their babies were more responsive to non-verbal behaviours. They tended to be more sensitive to changes in their children’s gazes and actions. They were also more likely to encourage their children to act independently; another behaviour that is linked to maternal mind-mindedness.
"By encouraging a mother to see her child – even before he or she can talk – as an individual person capable of communication, baby signing causes her to perceive her baby in a slightly different way. Mum sees her child as having his or her own mind."
In short, whilst baby signing does not appear to accelerate the language development of infants, it can result in several other benefits. Even so, Dr Kirk warns interested mothers not to expect too much from this approach.
"I see baby signing as an activity that mothers and babies can enjoy together," she explained. "However, I do not think that mums should feel under any pressure to achieve anything out of the ordinary. Previous research that my colleagues and I conducted revealed that mothers who attend baby signing classes rather than activities that focus on fun as opposed to a child’s development, tend to be significantly more stressed in their roles as parents. The last thing I want to do is to add to the stress of being a mum. Baby signing can be an enjoyable activity but parents should keep in mind that it will not necessarily benefit the language development of children from homes with good levels of interaction."
Dr Kirk concluded by outlining her present line of research. Her team is now exploring whether or not baby signing results in any long-term benefits for children.
"We are now following up on children who have started school," she explained. "We are looking to identify whether or not there exists a relationship between baby signing in infancy and mind-reading abilities at the age of six. Does baby signing affect a child’s ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people? These issues are all connected with the theory of mind."
This study was supported, in part, by a research grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).