There are many proponents of sign language for babies. Giving an baby the ability to communicate before she learns how to speak often promises to be a blessing to the frustrated parent. While there is a lot to be said for the benefits of using baby sign language, there are some pitfalls parents should be aware of prior to starting down that path.
Lack of Research
Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists in support of baby sign language, but one thing most developmental psychologists agree on is that there seems to be what Dr. Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon calls a “dearth of actual research.” There are only a handful of completed studies, such as those led by Drs. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn. The available research does point to many positive correlations, but these studies include very small sample sizes and are not widely recognized as being definitive.
There is no universal accepted method for teaching baby sign language. Doherty-Sneddon points out that this infant communication technique is typically a greatly simplified version of American Sign Language. There are several different programs available on the market, and often families simply resort to making their own signs. It is not uncommon for the method to evolve even within family units, as children pick up on and change signs to their liking.
The variations in signs used within different families means that as a communication tool, a child may be rendered once more without a voice once outside their home. Those not familiar with a babies daily signs are not likely going to be able to pick up on what is being expressed. This can translate into frustration on the part of the child, as they struggle to understand why others don’t comprehend their use of sign. Parents hoping to avoid this confusion would be advised to educate extended family members and friends of a child’s most common signs.
There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the use of sign language and how it might delay a child’s verbal communication. However, in her review of the available research, Doherty-Sneddon acknowledges the evidence which suggests baby sign language may actually help aid speech development. There appears to be nothing to back up the previously held claim that sign language may keep a child from talking longer than they otherwise would have. Still, it is recommended that parents use verbal communication in conjunction with sign language to help their children develop words at a typical rate.