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Could teaching your baby sign language help them learn to speak earlier?

Benefits of sign language demystified

Benefits of sign language demystified

Teaching sign language to babies has recently exploded as a trend for new parents. A debated topic that continues to inspire dialogue between professionals and parents, the question that begs to be asked is if it's truly beneficial.

We love the idea of teaching our kids a way to speak before speech, but it's a task that seems to have several myths attached to it. Cholee Clay, author at "We Have Kids," speaks to the myths, truths, and benefits behind sign language for children in her recent article. One of the most common myths attached to sign language is the idea that it hampers speech development or delays articulation; however according to Clay, evidence points to the contrary. The introduction of narration and repetition through signing actually promotes verbal communication. 

Nicole Bonelli, the director of the Infant Toddler Center at Vassar College, can attest to this. She explains, "While we don't encourage sign language drills or showing sign to children like flash cards, we have had great success teaching our youngest children basic signs."  

When can we start? 

According to Nancy Cadjan, president of SignBabies.com, a website dedicated to helping parents get started learning sign language, babies are developmentally ready for their parents to start signing to them at four months old, but won't be able to sign back until seven to nine months when they have better coordination. Babies' understanding of communication is just beginning to form in their fourth month; an ability that develops much sooner than their capacity to articulate words. This imbalance of aptitude can often be a source of frustration for little ones. Some parents find that sign language can be a solution for tantrums surrounding communication barriers. 

Mother of two of Walden and CEO of "A Love for Learning," a program designed to teach young readers, Gennine Hauser, explains her own experience with sign language. "I wanted my girls to be able to be effective communicators and I can see much less frustration... it's very important for children to feel they are understood," says Hauser. 

The benefits of sign language will last much past infancy. Another local mom, Francine Broughton, explains, "My daughter is now 13 and to this day I will 'sign' to her when she is across the room... And words like "No" are much nicer in sign!" 

The benefits

In addition to being a fun practice, according to Jay L. Hoecker, MD, teaching your baby sign language can create a lasting bond. Bonding between parents and children is shown to increase children's self-esteem and boost their confidence. In addition to introducing signing as a new language to your little one, research shows that signing can help bridge the gap for children when learning a new spoken language. 

While studies don't necessarily associate sign language with early reading, some parents swear by it. With over 20 years of experience in English Literature and School Counseling, Hauser confirms, "Before my girls knew how to speak they used signs, allowing communication and early practice in understanding the impact of symbols and language and meaning. My 3 year old reads at a second grade level and I believe signing helped open that door." Other studies identify sign language as a tool that can enhance brain development. If you think sign language may be useful for you, it's crucial to be sure it's a positive, enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

READ MORE: "Google Home is helping my autistic son to speak."

Tips to get started 

Sign language is meant to be fun and it's important to set realistic expectations for your practice. Experiencing the benefits of sign language could take months for you and your little one, and it's a process that requires patience. Hoecker suggests making signing interactive and says parents should "embrace [their] baby's arms and hands to make signs." 

Start simple with your infants.  Make sure the first signs you teach align with everyday activities and recognizable objects that accompany daily routine. And don't forget to accompany every sign with spoken words; this is key for speech development. 

Professionals and parents identify several signs to be most helpful for babies to identify their needs. Nate Smith of Beacon, finds that "the most useful sign and surprisingly utilitarian was 'more,' followed by 'all done.' Beyond food, it helped us to understand her desires for time on the playground swings, peekaboo and other games." 

With a little patience and a lot of love, sign language can ease communication between parents and their little ones.

READ MORE: Catch strugglers early and help them blossom

Key signs to learn

Sleep: This is a great way to start the bedtime routine.

All Done: This sign helps infants shift from one activity to the next or when food is finished. 

More: Use to indicate wanting more food, toys and playtime etc. Some babies will also understand this as a tool for "yes" or being pleased with something.

Medicine: This is great sign to communicate teething pains or other ailments.

Bath: This sign sets an expectation for schedule.

Play: Teaching your baby signs for activities they love brings even more enjoyment to signing.

Share: Introducing this key concept through sign can aid in expectation on the 
playground and at home.

Please and Thank You: This sign allows your little one to learn manners and make them fun, before they speak.

Lucia Civile is a mother who loves living in the Hudson Valley. She is sister CEO, photographer and writer at LACE Photo Media.