Donders Wonders Blog

Signs for Hearing Babies?

The new trend, “baby signing,” teaches hearing babies to communicate by signing ‘keywords’ before they can talk. Is this what parents have been waiting for? Does it work?

This post is also available in Dutch.

The new trend, “baby signing,” teaches hearing babies to communicate by signing ‘keywords’ before they can talk. Is this what parents have been waiting for? Does it work?

“Sign language for hearing babies?” Image courtesy of Pexels (CC0 1.0)

You are faced with a crying baby, but how do you figure out what it wants? Does their little tummy hurt? Or is the infant tired, hungry or even sick? It would be amazing if the child could tell you just what it needs! That’s where ‘baby signing’ comes in: babies can use their hands for communication before they can speak. Speaking is actually very difficult; it requires very precise control over your muscles and the vocal tracts take a long time to fully develop. In contrast, moving your hands is lot easier. A baby could clench and unclench their fists to tell its parents it wants milk. Or make a specific gesture to indicate pain. This sounds like heaven!  It would be a great solution to all parents’ problems!

Baby signing is the new hype. Hearing parents are told about the benefits of teaching “signs” to their hearing children and many companies are promoting and selling baby sign material. According to them, baby signing is a way for parents to communicate with their babies from early on. It is even supposed to be beneficial for language development and cognition. But is that true? In fact, research to date has failed to support the claim that baby signing will benefit the way hearing babies with hearing parents will acquire language. However, there is also no evidence that baby signing actually harms language development.

Hijacking sign languages?
Baby signing isn’t a real sign language. Instead, it borrows some signs from American Sign Language like “mummy/daddy”, “milk”, or “more” to enable a sort of gestural communication between parents and their baby before they are capable of speech. These signs are transparent, so it’s easier for parents to guess what baby signs mean. The baby sign trend is largely pushed by hearing people to benefit hearing children. So, it’s called baby sign, but actually it has really little to do with real sign languages.

What about deaf babies?
While hearing babies learn baby signs, many deaf babies actually never learn signs. For decades, the medical world advises hearing parents of deaf babies against signing with their deaf offspring. And in fact, over 90% of deaf babies have hearing parents (see one of my earlier blogs here). This means that many of those deaf children never acquire a sign language. So, it seems a bit unfair that baby signing for hearing children is so hip while sign language for deaf children, who actually need it, is so discouraged.

This is not to say that baby signing can’t be a fun thing to do: many parents and their children gain great pleasure from learning and using it together. Sign languages enable rich and more visual communication and are for everyone, whether you’re hearing, deaf, a child or adult.

This blog was written by Francie Manhardt and edited by Annelies van Nuland and Monica Wagner

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