Is Teaching Toddlers Sign Language Really Beneficial?

Teaching sign language to tots has become a trendy topic. Books, instructional videos and classes have proliferated, offering to teach parents hundreds of signs they can then pass on to their child. Some new parents may wonder if the benefits are worth the investment, however. Baby sign is hardly an essential communication tool, but it does have short-term advantages for both children and parents, especially during the pre-verbal stage. In the long run, though, if you skip the signing you probably won't notice any difference.

Baby Sign Versus American Sign Language

Baby sign is different from the sign language that hearing-impaired people use to communicate with each other, although many of the signs used by baby sign practitioners are derived from American Sign Language. Usually signs are simplified so that a toddler with limited fine motor skills can still replicate the motion. Baby sign systems do not teach a second language to toddlers; they provide only a limited vocabulary of isolated words.

Pre-verbal Communication

Baby sign is intended to act as a bridge between a child's pre-verbal stage and his acquisition of spoken language 3. Babies and toddlers can understand words and gestures long before they can produce them themselves. You can start signing at your baby right from birth -- repetition and reinforcement are key. At about 8 months of age, your child will be ready to sign back at you. The ability to communicate with parents and caregivers at this early age can decrease a child's frustration and defuse tantrums and meltdowns.

Parent-child Bonding

Practicing signs together can be an enjoyable activity that promotes quality time with your baby, and baby sign instructors cite research that indicates parents who do so feel more bonded with their child. A 2012 study published in Child Development suggests that this bonding many have more to do with the time and attention parent and child spend together than the actual details of teaching sign, an observation with which Dr. Linda Acredolo, co-founder of the Baby Signs Institute, concurs.

Language Acquisition

Some parents worry that teaching their children baby sign will delay verbal language acquisition. Child development experts say such fears are unfounded. There appears to be no difference in the age non-signing and signing toddlers begin to speak. In fact, a 2000 study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior showed some evidence that language acquisition occurs earlier in baby signers.

Long-Term Effects

Baby sign practitioners sometimes boast of studies that have shown a slight increase in the IQ scores of children who learned sign as toddlers, as well as other studies that show higher SAT scores among high schoolers who learned baby sign 2. Dr. Acredolo and fellow researcher Susan Goodwyn presented a paper in 2000 showing children who signed as babies exhibited a 12-point IQ advantage at age 8 over non-signers. The differences are small, however, and most researchers shy away from making any claims about long-term benefits.