I’ve been hearing a lot about teaching children sign language. What’s the deal? Supposedly baby signing teaches the child to communicate. But can’t my child communicate in other ways? Is teaching my baby to communicate while she is so young pushing her too hard? Is it worth doing or is it some kind of scam?

A few decades ago, researchers began to notice that children whose parents were hearing impaired and who taught their children to sign, were able to communicate before they were nine months old. Children with two hearing parents don’t usually have much to say until after their first birthday. If you think about it, using the hands to communicate makes a lot of sense. After all, babies have a lot more control over their fingers and hands than they do over their tongue and mouth.

Besides giving them a way to communicate earlier, signing improves babies’ motor skills, builds vocabulary and language abilities, reduces tantrums and frustration, and has even been linked with an increase in IQ. Signing with your baby is good for you too. When you understand what your baby wants you’ll have fewer tears to deal with and you (and your partner) will be less frustrated. When you’re feeling relaxed and in-control, parenting is a lot easier and a lot more fun. And that, in turn will bring you and your baby closer.

There are two major baby signing systems out there. They’re similar but there are some important distinctions (there’s more info on both in the Resources section):

  • Joseph Garcia’s Sign with Your Baby is based solidly on American Sign Language (ASL). Most of the signs your baby will learn are fairly intuitive, such as touching the fingers to the lips for "eat," and hooking the thumbs together and flapping the hands for "butterfly." Others are a little tougher to figure out (touching the thumb to the forehead for "dad" and to the chin for "mom") or may be difficult for little hands (putting the thumb between the first and middle fingers of a fist for "toilet" or holding up your hand as if indicating "five" and lowering the middle and ring fingers for "airplane"). Garcia’s philosophy is that if you’re going to the trouble to teach your baby a language, you might as well go with a real one. A baby who knows some ASL will be able to communicate with babies (and deaf people of any age) anywhere. And if you’re thinking long term, ASL fulfils the language requirement for admission to a growing number of colleges.
  • Linda Acredolo’s and Susan Goodwyn’s Baby Signs, is also based on ASL but it’s more flexible. Their theory is that since your baby isn’t going to be using sign language all that long, it’s best to make it as easy to learn as possible. So parents are encouraged to modify the ASL signs as they see fit and to invent their own. This could make communication with people outside the family a little tougher. However, most of the signs you and your baby are likely to come up with will be pretty easy to decipher.

Both systems are excellent and both give you and your baby an incredible opportunity to communicate with each other. I like Baby Signs a little better, though, because the flexibility appeals to me. If you go this route, try to use as many of the ASL signs as you can and modify them only as necessary.

However, if you prefer a more systematic approach or, if there are any deaf people in your family, Sign with Your Baby is the way to go. And even though, as I mentioned above, some of the signs aren’t completely obvious, if you practice them enough, you’ll do fine.