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Is Baby Sign Language Really Helpful?

Not being able to communicate is frustrating — as any toddler would tell you, if he could. To give your baby a way to tell you his needs before he can express them verbally, you might want to teach him sign language. Baby sign language gives your child tools to use to tell you what he wants, but whether it accelerates speech development or aids in brain development is still up for debate.

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Baby Signing Defined

The signs parents teach babies aren't always the same American Sign Language used by deaf persons. Certain parents modify the signs or make up their own; your baby might also make up his own signs for certain things. It's not necessary to teach a baby American Sign Language as a complete second language; learning just a few common words, such as "sleepy," "drink," "more" or "all done" can help your baby express his needs.

Communication Benefits

Giving your child a way to tell you what he wants is beneficial for both of you. Knowing what he's asking for saves time and frustration, on his part and yours. Being able to communicate his needs might also give your baby a better sense of confidence and self esteem. Because signing facilitates eye contact, it also encourages bonding. And, as with any learning activity, watching a child master signing gives a parent a sense of pride.

Normal Language Development and Signing

Clinical studies have given mixed results on the effects of signing on language development. A study published in the March-April 2013 issue of "Child Development" that compared language development in children taught signs to those who didn't learn sign found no difference in their language development. The study did find that mothers whose babies used signs were more responsive to their baby's nonverbal cues and encouraged more independent behavior. In a study published in the summer 2000 issue of the "Journal of Nonverbal Behavior," researchers found that signing did facilitate language development, although the advantage leveled off around age 3.

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How to Teach Signing

At an Ohio State University laboratory school, babies as young as 9 months learned to sign to communicate. To teach your child, start with just a few signs at a time and use them consistently, getting all caregivers on board with the same signs if possible. Follow your baby's cues and stop if he doesn't seem interested; not all babies get excited about signing.

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