Baby sign language opens doors to early communication

There’s nothing sweeter to a parent’s ears than the sounds of their baby cooing, babbling and the first “mama” or “da-da” words.

And there’s nothing more frustrating than hearing the cries of these same tiny tots who don’t yet have the words to express their wants and needs.

“Baby sign language can be a great way to help you communicate with your baby even before language develops,” says Tara Kehoe, a Villa Park resident and speech pathologist affiliated with Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley Region. “Baby sign language helps babies who are ready to communicate, but can’t quite bridge the gap to full speech.”

That gap between desire to communicate and ability often leads to frustration and tantrums, explains Kehoe, whose 18-month-old daughter, Libby, learned to communicate with more than 20 signs before her first birthday and five before starting to make word approximations.

Kehoe says that because hand-eye coordination develops sooner than verbal skills, infants can learn simple signs for common words and phrases such as “eat,” “drink,” “more,” “hug,” “play,” “cookie,” “all done,” and even “please” and “thank you” before they are able to produce understandable speech.

“It’s certainly less frustrating for Libby who now looks to me and uses both her words and signs to communicate needs,” Kehoe says. “Baby sign language has numerous benefits and babies that sign are often less fussy because they can tell you what they want instead of crying.”

Baby sign language benefits

Marianne Keefer, a stay-at-home mother of two and former speech pathologist, couldn’t agree more about the benefits of using baby sign language.

Her children, Hannah,5, and Colin, 3, began learning common signs for words including more, eat, milk, open, hat, all done, and many animals before their first birthday.

“Signs for ‘open’ and ‘please’ were probably the most used,” admits Keefer, who says while there are formal gestures for many words, she also created signs to fit her children’s needs. “Learning to wave bye-bye or giving a high-five are great ways to communicate with your baby and start using baby sign language.

“Because receptive language skills are first to form, modeling basic signs can be beneficial for babies even as young as 8 months of age,” explains Keefer, who notes that each child’s developmental stage is unique.

“In general, at age 9 and 10 months my children would watch me using the signs as I reinforced language and communication skills. By 12 months they were imitating and using expressive communication signs on their own.”

Speech and language experts say most babies start blowing raspberries and using vocalizations between 5 and 8 months of age. They recommend mimicking baby’s facial expressions, talking and movement and encouraging them to mimic you.

“When babies babble back and forth, it’s a great way to encourage early conversation and language development,” Keefer states.

Jump-starting communication

Research shows that babies who use sign language get a great start in life — often with increased vocabularies and more advanced cognitive skills, even years after they have stopped signing.

“While the use of gestures or signs may help communication, some parents worry that the gestures will delay speech or replace words,” Kehoe said. “Research doesn’t support that fear. Actually, the opposite is true.”

In a 20-year longitudinal study funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by scientific researchers Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, 24-month-old babies who used baby sign language were on average talking more like 28-month-olds — a three-month increase over non-signers. They also were putting together longer, more complex sentences.

“Babies that communicated with sign language before they could speak actually learned to talk sooner and scored higher on intelligence tests when compared to their non-signing peers,” reports Kehoe. “Even in follow up studies at age 8, children who had learned to sign as infants scored significantly higher on IQ tests than those who had not.”

In addition to helping babies learn to talk and jump-starting intellectual development, Kehoe adds that studies also show baby sign language can reduce frustration and other aggressive behaviors, helps parents be more responsive, promotes positive emotional development, strengthens the parent-child bond, and boosts baby’s self-confidence and self-esteem.

“Baby sign language also can play a significant role in helping children with delayed speech or special needs to communicate,” explains Kehoe, who points to a 2008 autism and meta-analysis report.

“In that report, researchers reaffirm the importance of total communication — combining baby sign language or sign language with speech — as a highly effective strategy for increasing communication skills in children and young adults with autism,” she says. “So when a parent asks me if teaching gestures in conjunction with verbal development is a good idea, I say yes.”

Ÿ Tara Kehoe is manager of the speech and language department at Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley Region, an accredited outpatient pediatric rehabilitation center serving clients at locations in Villa Park, Elgin and Naperville. For information, call (630) 620-4433.

Resources for teaching sign language

Tanit JarusanLily Garden teacher Chris Gillette shows Katie Blevins how to say “bath” in sign language.
Tanit JarusanCamille “Millie” Buttimer says “thank you” using sign language at Lily Garden Child Care center in Villa Park.
Tanit JarusanChris Gillette teaches Camille “Millie” Buttimer how to say “daddy” in sign language at Lily Garden Child Care center in Villa Park.
Photo by Tara KehoeLibby Kehoe, 18 months, signs “jump.”

There’s a sign for that!

Baby sign language enthusiasts recommend a few simple starter signs to help facilitate communication.

ŸAll in the family: Mommy and daddy (eventually branching out to include sister, brother, grandma and grandpa, aunt and uncle)

ŸTime to eat! Signs for milk, whether breast milk, formula of cow’s milk, are great starter signs. So, too, is the phrase “all done” or “more.”

ŸFavorite things: Signs for favorite toys such as a teddy bear, doll or truck. Children also love to learn the names of various animals (dog, cat, bird, monkey, and elephant).

ŸDiaper time: For some babies having a soiled diaper is a really big deal and they love having a way to communicate time for a change.

ŸHappy: A great sign to celebrate and laugh together.

ŸLet’s read: Everyone loves a good story and children often look forward to storytime.