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By Teesta Sullivan

Every parent can remember a time when his or her beautiful baby changed into a screaming bundle of protoplasm. There is no frustration that can compare to knowing that you have absolutely no idea what your infant is trying to tell you. If he could only talk …

Proponents of baby signing believe that we can teach our infants to “talk” in sign language. Research has shown us that a baby’s motor skills develop at a much earlier rate than do his verbal ones. It follows that babies are capable of communicating with gestures at a much earlier age than they can verbalize language. For instance, most infants learn how to wave “bye-bye” or shake their head to mean “no” long before they can say those words.

Teesta Sullivan

Baby signing helps teach babies other gestures that allow them to communicate just as easily as these more common signs. The purpose of baby signing is to teach babies to use simple gestures to communicate with their parents and caregivers.

These “signs” or “gestures” are based on sign languages, and represent concepts or objects such as “eat,” “drink,” “milk” and “more.” There is even a language program, Makaton, which offers a multimodal approach designed for children and adults with disabilities. Makaton signs are used extensively throughout the United Kingdom, and have been translated for more than 40 countries.

Linda Acredolo is the cofounder of Baby Signs, one of the most popular baby signing programs in the United States. It is based on the American Sign Language. Acredolo, who has a doctorate in child development, began exploring sign language for infants when she observed her infant daughter appearing to make signs.

Acredolo headed an NIH-funded research project that follows 103 babies. One-third of the children were instructed in sign language. The remaining two-thirds were in control groups. According to Acredolo, the infants who learned sign language not only demonstrated a faster language development, but also had higher IQs (12 points) by the time they reached 8 years of age. Acredolos’ results were published in the Journal of Noverbal Behavior in 2000.

Educators have known for a long time that making kinesthetic anchors (using movement activities) help children of all ages retain and recall information. An example of this would be a preschooler learning The Itsy Bitsy Spider, and the accompanying hand gestures. Is baby signing simply an extension of this?

Critics feel that teaching an infant sign language is not necessary unless there is an identified problem with the child. According to Kamini Gadhok, chief executive of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, “We’re concerned that the use of formal signing does not take priority over the need for parents to talk to children. Language should be encouraged through a range of everyday activities.” Snow does not feel that signing will delay language development, although some critics believe that a child who signs may be less likely to want to verbalize.

Proponents of baby signing stress that signing empowers an infant, and helps decrease a child’s frustration. Because he is able to have his needs understood and met, the child feels more secure and in control of his world. In turn, parents and caregivers are able to bond more easily to their child because his wants are not such a mystery.

There are certainly interesting arguments to be made for both sides. As interest in baby signing grows, more and more programs offer classes. Baby signing can be a wonderful tool for communication as long as it does not catapult into another basis for comparison among children.

Be cognizant of your child’s personality. If you try a baby-signing class, and it seems too stressful for your baby, stop going. Commonsense should not be left by the wayside in a parents’ effort to ensure their child gets ahead.

Teesta Sullivan has a JD, a MSH and B.A. in Psychology. She is the area developer for FasTracKids and also president of Legendary Beginnings Inc., an authorized licensee of FasTracKids. She can be reached at (813) 908-5437.

Know of any youth who have won an award or have a recent accomplishment? Send in your news on youth to Shephali J. Rele, Khaas Baat, 18313 Cypress Stand Circle, Tampa, FL 33647 or e-mail Be sure to include school name, grade and age.

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