Q: All my friends are teaching their babies sign language. They tell me how great it is, but I’m afraid signing will keep my 8-month-old daughter from starting to talk. Is this a problem?
A: Studies show that signing with babies who have normal hearing doesn’t appear to have a negative effect on language development. In fact, some studies show that it may boost verbal skills.
It may be that signing is helpful because parents who sign with their baby are spending more time focusing on communicating. They are actively watching their child, trying to understand her, and then responding to what she is saying. Signing may also lead parents to use more language with their child, which research shows helps children learn more words. When a baby makes a sign for more, for instance, the parent may say in response, You want more juice? I’ll put some more in your cup.
But you don’t need to use a formal signing program with your baby to have these enriching “conversations.” If you watch your baby carefully, you will see that she is communicating with you all the time using signals—her sounds, facial expressions, and actions. When you play a game of peek-a-boo and then stop, she reaches out to you and babbles to let you know she wants you to keep playing. When she wants to be picked up, she raises her arms to you. Responding to these kinds of signals builds her language skills as well as her emotional and social development.