Baby Sign Research

I’m not totally convinced that the research surrounding baby sign language has anything to do with the actual mechanics of the process.  That is, I don’t think that the signing mechanics has anything to do with the benefits derived, although I am leaving this up as a possibility.  Suffice it to say that at this date and time, the research on baby signing for hearing babies hasn’t quite caught up to the claims made.  The results might be accurate – that is babies might have more advanced vocabularies, higher IQ, be more manageable, and so forth, but perhaps these benefits are confused or confounded with other variables.

Excerpted from the course book Definitive Baby Sign Language:

A study by Dr. Linda Acredelo and Dr Susan Goodwyn authors of Baby signs published in 1997 found through their research that no language delays occurred.  Rather, babies who signed had better language abilities and had higher IQ’s when tested years later….

In their 1989 study, 140 families with 11 month old babies were selected and divided into three groups.  The researchers were careful to separate the groups based on development, family income, baby’s birth order, and ability to vocalize.  One third of the families were taught how to use sign language, one third were encouraged to speak to their babies more often than they would normally and the remaining families weren’t told to do anything differently.  This group was the “control group” – the group by which all others would be compared.  None of the groups had any knowledge of the purpose of the study or that there were other groups participating in the study.  The researchers then followed the groups for 2 years.

The researchers found that babies at 24 months had vocabularies of 27-28 month olds and at 24 months used significantly longer sentences than non-signers.  Their IQ’s also measured 12 points higher than their non-signing counterparts (114 compared to 102).  Their vocabularies were measured at 3 years of age and they found that the signers were equal to 4 year olds.  They were a full year ahead of the non-signers!  According to Dr. Michelle Anthony and Dr. Reyna Linder’s research (see by 18 months of age an average signer will have 94 signs and 105 spoken words, whereas a non-signing child will have 10-50 spoken words only.  Signing babies have above-average comprehension of English and their grammar and syntax are way more advanced than non-signers.

But what does this all mean?  Could it not mean that parents who sign to their children pay more attention to them, talk to them more, interact with them more and so forth?  Absolutely.  However, this might be the ‘method to the madness.’

Maybe signing with your baby is just an excellent way to do good things for them, things that help them develop stronger minds and better control over their emotions and hence their environment.  In other words, maybe parents who choose to sign, are also parents who choose to be good parents overall.  They want the best for their kids and part of that includes spending a lot of one-on-one time with them, figuring their little personalities out and sharing in their learning experiences.

In order for a parent to teach sign, they need to bond with their child, create learning opportunities and play games.  In fact, signing requires an inordinate amount of one-on-one time to establish and maintain.  Signing parents talk A LOT with their babies – and not just in passing, we talk to our babies directly, we have conversations with them.  This level of communication might surprise other parents.  Non-signing parents, on the other hand might have less structure and fewer concrete goals.  Instead of aiming to teach a sign, a non-signing parent might just be along for the ride so to speak.  I will say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with non-signing parents – at all.  What I am saying is there may be two breeds of parents out there, one who is interested in active teaching and one who is more laissez-faire.

The research by Dr. Linda Acredelo and Dr Susan Goodwyn tried to address these concerns by instructing the other group of parents to talk and interact more with their children minus signing.  But let’s face it, these factors are difficult to account for.  I think most non-signing parents would be floored by how much more a signing parents talks explicitly with their signing baby.  I don’t think you can get a non-signing parent to that level (but where you do, you might find similarly advanced children).  In other words, you just can’t precisely control for that variable.  In addition, until research is replicated several times by several researches, it isn’t conclusive.  That’s the real beauty of science – it should be repeatable.

Now let’s be clear, signing likely does play a strong role in advancing a baby cognitively.  That’s not my point, what I’m really saying, is that if signs were stripped away, yet all the other communication patterns and behaviours that went along with signing remained the same, perhaps the exact same benefits would be found in non-signing babies.  I would hazard a guess that signing parents also feed their kids healthy foods and also keep them from watching television in any significant doses.  There is just so many signs to teach, so many things to talk about!  No doubt, these factors are difficult to control in any study, but maybe in the long run, they don’t matter that much.  Maybe signing is just a good reason to do good things for a baby.  The side benefits are just that, something that comes on the side.

I certainly think so, and this is why I contest that the only thing that really matters to me is that signing be a fun way to communicate and connect with my baby and nothing more.  Do I really care that my baby might gain 12 more IQ “points”?  Hardly!  So what if they have a bigger vocabulary?  They’ll be able to skip a grade maybe?  What’s the rush!  The side benefits to signing are superfluous in my opinion.  I say; ignore all these “new-age” reasons to sign with your baby and just enjoy the extra moments you’ll get to share with them.

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