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Why Not Baby Signs?

September 8th, 2014 by | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Even parents who have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for their children often ask, “Should we use baby signs?” just to fill the gap during the time from identification to cochlear implantation, or identification to those first spoken words.  If you’re to believe the media hype, every parent, those of children with and without hearing loss, is doing it.  So what could be the problem?

However, media hype is just that: hype.  A marketing frenzy created by companies that care way more about their bottom line than your child’s development or any kind of real research, making wildly unsubstantiated claims that baby signs will do everything from increase your child’s IQ to solve world hunger (okay, maybe not that last one).  When we really examine the sources, are baby signs all they’re cracked up to be?  Here is what I discuss with parents:

If you have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for your child, start in the direction you mean to go.  Devoting time and energy to learning signs, even baby signs, that you plan on dropping later is taking precious time off task and siphoning your energy away from what you’ve identified as your primary goal: becoming the first and best teacher who can help your child learn to listen and talk.  I believe that parents have the right to choose whatever communication method will work best for their family.  But I advise them:  once you choose a communication method, run after it like crazy and give it 100%.  That is how the “success stories” in any communication mode are made.

Another aspect to consider is that baby signs are not full, complete language.  By only signing key words, parents are providing their child reduced language input, when they have at their disposal a full, fluent language (their native language(s)) already in the home.  If you’re talking to your baby and only signing key words (“Do YOU WANT your BOTTLE?  It’s time to take a DRINK.  Are YOU HUNGRY?) it’s like talking to a dog who only hears, “Wah wah wah wah wah LEASH wah wah WALK wah wah TREAT.”  You’re being the Charlie Brown teacher, and your baby is not building the crucial linguistic connections in the brain for a full language system.  (This is another reason why I encourage parents who choose a sign language approach to become fluent… yesterday).

The signs taught in baby signs books/videos/DVDs/flashcards (don’t get me started on the flashcards) are iconic.  That is, if you’ve ever played a game of charades, you probably know these signs.  They’re signs that make sense because you’re literally acting out or creating a picture of the thing you’re discussing (think about the signs for book, drink, eat, etc.).  If you think about spoken language, there is nothing inherently “book” about the word “book.”  Nothing about how you say “cat” actually means the animal “cat.”  This is an important difference.  We have to help infants and toddlers learn the relationship between words and their referents.  There are non-iconic signs in ASL, but they’re not the ones in the standard baby sign repertoire.  If your goal is spoken English, you’re much better served helping your child establish spoken word-referent connections instead.

Parents are often sold on the many myths promoted by those who have a significant financial interest in selling baby sign materials.  But do they have any merit?

  •  Myth: Baby signs encourage bonding by enabling children to express their needs sooner.  Baby signs serve to decrease parental responsiveness.  There are real, significant, evolutionarily and developmentally important reasons why babies do not talk until they’re around a year old.  Most mothers of infants can identify their baby’s cries and tell you that the infant has distinct sounds for hunger, wetness, or pain.  There’s a purpose for this!  Babies aren’t supposed to tell us what they need — it’s part of the bonding process that helps parents become attuned to their children’s needs.  It may be more convenient for you to have your child “tell” you what he wants, but you are short-circuiting a very important bonding process.

  •  Myth: My child is so smart, he could tell me he wanted more food using sign way before any of the other babies could say it.  This is simple operant conditioning.  If I do X [the sign], I get Y [more food].  You can train a rat to do this.  I don’t think it says much about your child’s long-term intellectual potential.  Isolated signs like this to get what you want are  a “trick,” not a full language system.

  •  Myth: Because baby signs are marketed as “educational,” they must have value.  Unlike words like “Reduced Fat” or “Caffeine Free,” “Educational” is not a federally regulated label.  Anyone can advertise their products as being “educational” without the slightest hint of research behind them.  At the end of the day, no matter how cute the story is behind the product, or how hard they try to sell you on the idea that this is a “family” production or “by moms, for moms,” these companies care about their bottom line, not your child.  That’s just how capitalism works.

So what does the research say about baby signs?

Topshee Johnston et. al (2003) performed a comprehensive review of nearly 1,200 studies that had been conducted on baby signs and found that only five showed that baby sign programs had a positive effect on child language… and the positive effects shown in those studies did not last past age two.  An exhaustive review of the evidence showed overwhelmingly neutral/negative effects from baby sign language.  Any positive outcomes noted did not have persistent, long-lasting effects on the child’s language and cognitive development later in life.  By age two, it was impossible to tell the difference between children who had used baby signs and those who had not.

Kirk et. al (2012), found no evidence to support claims that using baby signing with babies helps to accelerate their language development.  While babies did learn the signs and begin using them before they started talking, they did not learn the associated words any earlier than babies who had not been exposed to baby signs, and did not show any overall enhancement in language development.  The study did find that helping parents become more attentive to their children’s gestures served to increase responsiveness and bonding, but this is a standard part of early intervention in auditory verbal therapy, and not unique to baby sign programs.

In infants with hearing loss who go on to receive cochlear implants, Dr. Susan Nittrouer found that when sign language was used to supplement spoken language, there was no effect on the spoken language of children identified with hearing loss below one year of age. However, for children identified at one year of age or older, there is a negative effect—that is, when you combine spoken language and sign language in children over one year of age, their spoken language suffers.  Basically, if you want to knock yourself out doing baby signs with your infant pre-CI, you’re just exerting energy for no effect on your child’s language.  If you want to use signs after your child receives the CI, you’re working against their listening and spoken language development.  (If you’re looking for other, research-based things you can do with your child while waiting for their cochlear implant, click here.)

Originally published at

Written by

Elizabeth Rosenzweig MS CCC-SLP LSLS Cert. AVT is a Listening and Spoken Language Specialist Certified Auditory Verbal Therapist. She provides auditory verbal therapy, aural rehabilitation, IEP advocacy, consultation, and LSLS mentoring for clients around the world via teletherapy. You can learn more about Elizabeth's services on her Website or Facebook.


September 8, 2014 at 10:41 pm

Thank you, Elizabeth!

Donald James Liveley

September 9, 2014 at 6:05 am

Best explanation I have seen. Thanks, big time. Let me add upon what you shared here. Their are two major halves to human cognition. One is memory and that is what knowledge largely is. It is rote. The second half, roughly speaking, is intelligence. That is the ability to make associations or connections between two or more “points”. The pivotal skill set I call “correlation.” The ability to to determine where the association is causal or something else. And what you said about operant conditioning – absolutely. Confirmational Bias where you perceive what you want to perceive. And the symptoms become the cause. The ravage that comes from false attributions! Yet, here is the irony of ironies. Correlation is a a very visual capability – suggesting a geometrical kind of intelligence. Yet a visually impaired person has this skill from the associations they make using other skills. Asian characters are visual in major ways and reflects in some of their scholastic abilities and outcomes. So this whole sign issue to me shows how we can improve education. Sign Lanaguage ain’t the way, yet is a clue. If 1,000 people had to navigate from Los Angles To Boston, how many would prefer a Rand McNalley Map or how many want the textual instructions for Google Map that say 1.5 miles down this street, 200 miles this road, off at this exit, turn right, go 452 miles north on highway… So using maps, namely mind maps, can illustrate correlations that are lost in the words. But, to give coverage to ASl, BSL, etc… cannot. It is visual, but it is not a language base that gives abilities to detailed correlations fundamental to nuanced intelligence that we need to sustain Humanity. Hope this is not too overwhelming. Take it from a deaf geek who never signed.

September 9, 2014 at 11:36 pm

Hello Elizabeth,
I am the parent of a bilaterally implanted 12 year old. Happy to report that she’s done remarkably well and is thriving. Our experience, being in Washington DC, was unique in that we had access to ASL-based parent infant programs, as well as AV-focused parent infant programs. We were fortunate to be able to access both. I absolutely appreciate the citations of scientific studies in your article, (I am a researcher by training). However, I would say that a critical component that feels like it’s missing here is the parental drive (in my case, it was a desperate drive) to have a way to communicate with my daughter when we learned she was deaf. I dove headfirst into learning as much sign language as I could, so that I had a way to communicate with her prior to her CI being activated. This was instrumental in our bonding experience, and in no way undermined my ability to read her needs. Learning she was deaf was, for me, an extraordinarily difficult time. I know this is often the case for many. Using dismissive language such as “knock yourself out” and “wasting time” does undermine the professional message you’re trying to convey, as it comes across as sarcastically aimed at parents who, like I was 12 years ago, are struggling to find ways to connect with their children.


September 16, 2014 at 5:11 am


Thank you for posting this article. It provides a different perspective. I would love to talk more about this if you are willing. Much thanks and peace.