Sign Language for Hearing Babies

Teaching hearing babies Sign Language (SL) seems to be the hottest trend in child development in the UK and USA at present. It is said to boost linguistic and intellectual development and there is a wealth of research that is being done on it with amazing results. Having been exposed to SL in OT with children with special needs, I heard about it and decided to try it with my baby, Brian. We were completely sold on the concept and the more I read the more sense it made and I have become passionate about this form of communication, both with hearing babies, and with children with special needs. I have summarized some research I have read on the various websites listed at the end of this article, so if you want more specific details visit the websites for the articles.

So what is it? It is the use of symbolic gestures to enhance your verbal interactions with your baby. It is something we all do naturally, through pointing and gesturing. It is based on Sign Language for adults and there are various versions you can use (American Sign Language, British Sign Language or South African). I chose American SL as I found an easy accessible resource book to follow. I looked at the SA SL and the UK SL, but they were very similar.

So how do you do it? You begin with a few easy signs at the age of 6 to 8 months. Before that they have little memory for retaining the signs and poor motor skills to actually carry out the signs. The child begins to sign back to you anywhere between 9 and 14 months. We started signing just 3 signs to Brian at around 7 months, and his first sign was “Bird” at 12 months. Easy signs include:

More (all the fingers of both hands coming together at one point) – it is both motivating in that they can get more bouncing, more pudding, more tickles and it is easy to do.

Milk – another motivating one in that you only do it at Milk time (one hand doing the action of milking a cow).

Bird – Brian always focused on birds in our garden and was interested in them, as we were, so this was a way for him to alert us to what he was looking at (index and thumb make a beak shape opening and closing).

Whatever your child is interested in and is regularly in your environment will be the signs to focus on initially. For those first few months, we kept it simple and persevered. We always used it together with the spoken word and tried to do it clearly within his field of vision. Meal times always presented good opportunities as you sit opposite your child and have shared attention. Repetition and consistency are important.   It does not require extra time to sit and teach your baby – you are simply using it with your normal speech.  As a family, you start to make signing a habit, and you try and sign when you read and when you sing too. At first, we would guide Brian’s hands when he was learning a new sign and reward his efforts. Animal signs are also fun to teach them. When they start to sign those first one or two words, that is your cue to Go For It, and teach them anything you can! With Brian, his signing exploded at 12 and 13 months (see table below) and he was even stringing signs together quite quickly “More Milk”; “Bird Outside” (13 months).  When they are able to speak it, they will stop naturally, or use it for extra emphasis. Speaking is easier than signing so speech does come. In fact speech comes earlier due to those specific language centres in the brain being more stimulated! Now Brian is 20 months and will sign when he has his mouth full (“More Eat” or for extra emphasis “Please” with both hands, said together with the word when he really wants something!) It was fascinating to observe how his speech then developed rapidly and by 18 months he had over 300 words and was putting short sentences together.

A few signs can last forever in your family. “I love you” in a crowd or being dropped off from school, when shouting “I Love you” to your 16 years old son is no longer appropriate; “toilet” if you want to check if everyone’s been at a social gathering, and I am sure our family will use it whilst bird watching when being quiet is critical!

So what are the benefits? People say when you’ve done it once; you will always do it with your next child, an advert for how it works. So here are the benefits from what research has proved:

  • Early communication – babies can communicate specific things early, such as needs or fears
  • Increases self-esteem – early self-sufficiency by allowing them to communicate their needs and be an effective member of the household.
  • Reduces frustration – for parents and babies because you know what they want
  • Enhance language skills – they talk earlier and build a better vocabulary. On average children who signed as babies have 50 more spoken words by the age of 2 than those that didn’t.
  • Enhances bonding and enriches parent/child interactions – two way communication enables this – build up more of a foundation of trust
  • Get a window into your child’s mind and personality – they can point things out and tell you about things earlier
  • Allows you to see just how smart your baby really is!
  • Babies who sign are found to have an increased interest in books
  • Babies who sign are found to have a greater natural tendency to gesture
  • Increases IQ – on average 12 points higher than average as proved by research
How it Relates to Sensory Integration and Why it Works

Generally babies build vocab through hearing and hearing only. With signing, they are learning vocab through three senses – their auditory, visual and kinaesthetic senses. This means that the brain is building a much more extensive network of neurons earlier and more richly with the first 3 years being optimal for speech development. It develops a larger area of the brain for language both on the right and left sides of the brain, which improves all future-related language abilities – research has shown that learning foreign languages, reading and writing skills and communication skills are all better in children who have learnt sign language early on.

If 2 languages are learned (e.g. English and Afrikaans), they are both stored in the same area in the left brain. If SL and a language are learned, the SL is stored in the right side of the brain in a separate memory store (Research with MRI scans). SL uses the eyes more than any spoken language so it goes to the right brain and then over to the left brain – thus more synapses are made between the Left and Right brain, strengthening bilateral integration and interconnections.

Research with MRI scans shows increased activity during pre-puberty in the right brain – the right brain is far more absorbent earlier on, to learn SL, non-verbal communication etc. Studies show that age 12, children who have done SL have shown a greater recognition of letters and sounds, better spelling, better speech, better vocab and better communication skills. Another interesting finding is that girls tend to sign much more than boys.

In terms of therapy, SL can and is being used in special needs environments very successfully with children with learning difficulties, Downs, Autism; MH; CP; Aphasia; Apraxia of Speech and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. It is invaluable in child care settings, as the carers of 12 month babies can understand the babies needs and the environment tends to be quieter which also helps auditory integration.

SL is made for babies; motor areas develop sooner than mouth and language articulators. Children like it and pay attention to the movement, thus becoming more involved, more involved in the process of learning and more interest in learning.

My observations are that we are also programming them to recognize non-verbal communication, to pick up on subtle body language and cues – which is vital for effective communication – and thus life! I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of this needs for non-verbal communication, especially in today’s world where most communication is now done via email, SMS etc and body language is forgotten – however it is still 80% of communication, and communication is still one of the keys to success.

Brian's Age Number of SignsNumber of WordsNorm for Speech (WITS)
Eleven Months10
Twelve Months1542-3
Thirteen Months 269
Fourteen Months3010
Fifteen Months36372-6
Sixteen Months3880
Seventeen Months40130
Eighteen Months15300+6-20
Brian: Assessment Done at Two Years and Eight Months

Comprehension (that of a 3 year old)

Verbs (that of a 5 year 6 month old)

Digit Repetition (that of a 4 year 6 month old)

Sentence Repetition (that of a 4 year old)

Vocabulary (that of a 3 year 6 month old)

Prepositions (that of a 4 year 6 month old)

Resources – Joseph Garcia, Sign with your Baby – Go to the Community page, then Links, then Research articles – baby sign + kids – Look for Articles

Baby Sign Language Basics by Monta Briant ISBN 1401902901