Carefully positioning their thumbs while clenching their fingers in a fist, a group of mothers stare into the eyes of their bewildered babies while repeating aloud the word “milk.”
The young infants let out shrills, smiles and babbles as their mothers, with voices rising and falling in excitement, repeat the sign and its meaning in the hope it will improve their infant’s communication skills.
The six mothers and one grandmother are enrolled in a program offered by the Saskatoon office of the Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services that aims to teach mothers and their hearing babies how to sign.
The organization is using the SIGN with your BABY method created by researcher Joseph Garcia, which is based on American sign language.
Garcia, who began developing the method as a graduate student at Alaska Pacific University, found infants exposed to sign as early as six months could repeat the signs with their correct meaning by the eighth or ninth month.
A plethora of research suggests baby sign stimulates verbal language development, improves IQ, leads to expanded vocabularies, improves parent-baby bonding and communication and decreases infant frustration.
“The intention is not to teach your child a second language but to facilitate earlier communication, so you’d be supporting spoken English by modelling signs for certain words and then those signs will become launching pads for language exposure,” said Anne Websdale, a spokesperson for the city office of Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services.
Loretta Hastings joined the 12-week program with her six-month-old son, Cardinal, after hearing about the benefits of baby sign through family and news stories.
The popularity of baby sign has gained momentum recently in the media and Hollywood with the movie Meet the Fockers, which featured a little boy known as Jack as the grandson of Robert De Niro, who uses baby sign to communicate with adults.
Hastings hopes learning baby sign will strengthen the bond with her son and his ability to communicate.
“We learned 60 words the other day. It was a little overwhelming at the start but actually it’s pretty easy to learn. You catch on — I remember all 60 words already,” she said, noting she is concentrating on teaching her son the milk sign.
Websdale, who said she saw a growing need or desire for hearing mothers to learn baby sign, decided to pilot the program at the city office.
So far the program, which costs $50 plus the cost of the textbook, is proving to be a success, she said, adding she has already received positive feedback.
“It’s fun, it’s fun to learn, it’s fun to do with your baby but it has to be consistent,” Websdale said. “You have to practise it everyday.”
Heather Robertson is practising three signs — milk, eat and more with her five-month old daughter Abigail Peace, with the idea of introducing the signs slowly each week.
“Something I may do with Abby is just read her a book that has characters in it and use signs at the same time,” she said.
Friends and family have been supportive of the program, Robertson added.
“It’s surprising how many people have heard of signing to your baby,” she said. “I think that’s maybe because . . . it’s an intuitive thing. You see babies doing high fives or giving thumbs up or toddlers at young ages. I think parents have often expressed themselves with signs for babies and this is a bit more structured.”
While numerous studies tout the benefits of baby sign, a review recently conducted by two Canadian universities counter these claims.
A 2003 review of 1,208 potentially relevant studies on baby sign language for hearing infants who began receiving sign language instruction before the age of 12 months, found only 17 studies which supported researcher’s claims of the benefits of baby sign.
The review conducted by Cyne Johnston and Andree Durieux-Smith of the University of Ottawa and Kathleen Bloom at the University of Waterloo, found a lack of supporting evidence due to flawed scientific methods.
“There were serious flaws in the methodology that they used in these studies, so the evidence that is out there isn’t the best quality evidence and there really is not enough of it to say whether or not sign language improves language or whether it provides any other developmental benefits,” Johnston said.
Major flaws include using small groups of children in the studies, a lack of reporting to explain how children were selected or assigned to different groups including those that received sign language training or parents who received sign language training, failing to follow up on all children and report all statistical results, she added.
But there were some positive indicators in the research, she said, noting smaller studies showed infants who learned sign with advanced language scores.
“As well, in the larger group, results that they reported did show there were improvements in language in the kids that received sign language training . . .” Johnston said.
But she cautions many of the programs that are commercially available to parents that offer books and videos, have not been studied in the research.
“In the research all of the studies were done with . . . either parents who were fluent signers because they were deaf themselves and had grown up in deaf cultures and spoke sign language fluently or the parents were taught in a group setting and had instruction by experts on sign language.”
But speech pathologist Carolyn McKinnon says she has seen marked improved in children referred to her with speech or language development delays with the use of sign language.
Using sign language is helpful during a child’s transition period, when a child may understand a lot but may have difficulty forming the words, said McKinnon who works in the children’s program at the Wascana rehabilitation centre, part of the Regina Qu’Appelle health region.
“We’ve known it can be easier for a child to imitate the sign, the physical action of the sign, than to use all the little muscles in the mouth to form the word,” she said.
Most children respond well, she added.
“A lot of it is just breaking that frustration because it’s important to know kids often understand way more than they can say,” she said, adding she urges parents to develop their own natural signs.
But Johnston advises parents to engage in learning baby sign for enjoyment, not to give them a “leg-up.
“Reading to your child and having interactions with them one-on-one are things that have been shown in research to be beneficial for child development, more so than the sign language itself,” she said.
BABY SIGN WEBSITES
SIGN, INFANT DEVELOPMENT FACTS
- Charles-Michel, abbe de l’Epee (1712-89), developed the first sign language for the deaf in the mid-18th century
- American Sign Language is now used by more than half a million people.
- Most children begin to understand some words several months before their speak their first word.
- One to three year-olds typically understand five times as many words as they actually use in everyday speech.
- The average infant speaks his or her first words by 12-14 months.
- By the time a child reaches his or her 18th month, the child has a speaking vocabulary of about 50 words.
- By three years of age children are learning at least two new words a day and possess a working vocabulary of 1,000 words.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica
Ran with fact box “Sign, infant development facts” which has been appended to the story.
By Julie Saccone