Can sign language really help babies get along better?

ResearchBlogging.orgBaby sign language is all the rage these days. Upscale day-care centers and nanny services promote it as a better way of understanding what babies want. Babies have been known to reliably produce signs as young as 5.5 months, and studies have shown that they reliably produce signs significantly earlier than spoken words. As we've reported here, there is no evidence that teaching sign language delays spoken language development.

But is formal sign training effective? Some studies about baby sign language have been quite informal, with parents and caregivers inventing makeshift signs to "talk" to their babies about bodily functions, favorite toys, desires for comfort, and so on. Other studies have focused exclusively on laboratory settings, with little follow-up to see if the signs acquired in the lab have any practical use.

A team led by Rachel Thompson has now combined these two approaches to explore whether formal laboratory training can have a positive impact on real babies' lives -- and their parents and caregivers.

The researchers systematically taught a modified ASL sign to Heather, a 10-month-old with Down syndrome. Heather learned to say "please" to ask for a toy. A 6-month-old normally-developing child, Betty, was taught a different sign, "more," to ask for more food.

The training for each baby was similar, but I'll take you step-by-step through Betty's training. Remember, a six-month-old is just barely able to sit up on her own, much like Nora in this photo:


In fact, I think Nora's a little older than six months here -- but this photo was still taken several months before she uttered her first word.

Betty's training was done quite systematically. First she was given a spoonful of baby food. Then the experimenter demonstrated the gesture "more" (bringing both hands together at the body's midline). If Betty did not duplicate the gesture within five seconds, the experimenter showed her how to do the gesture by gently moving her hands as required. Then Betty was given another bite. The time between the experimenter's gesture and Betty's response was gradually extended, giving her more time to duplicate the gesture on her own without being shown how to do it. This graph shows Betty's progress learning the gesture:


The open circles represent prompted signing -- when the experimenter showed Betty how to make the sign. The filled circles are independent signs, made without any prompt from the experimenter. The numbers at the top of the chart represent the number of seconds between the experimenter making the sign and modeling the prompt. If Betty independently produced the sign, then no model prompt was made. The numbers at the bottom are the total number of five-minute learning sessions, which occurred several times each day. The vertical axis of the graph represents the number of each type of sign made per minute. As you can see, after about 30 sessions, fewer than 10 days of training, Betty began producing the signs independently. After 45 sessions, training was stopped and the graph shows how often Betty independently produced the sign with no prompting of any kind.

Finally, after session 50, Betty was moved to real-world settings where the experiment was repeated using different experimenters: a classroom teacher in the classroom, and her father his office. As you can see, Betty continued to produce the sign independently with very little help from the experimenters.

Heather, who had Down syndrome, showed nearly the identical pattern.

In a second study, the real-world benefits of signing were explored more deliberately. Can signing take the place of crying? Before they can talk, most babies cry a lot ,since this is effectively the only way they can communicate to their parents that something is wrong. As Chad Orzel will tell you, this isn't a pleasant experience for the parents, and it's unclear that the child gets much out of crying either.

Two boys who cried frequently were trained to give signs instead of crying: Geoffrey, 10 months old, generally cried when he didn't get enough attention in the classroom. Lyle, 9 months old, cried when he wanted his mother to pick him up.

Geoffrey was trained to give the sign for "please", and Lyle was shown the sign for "up", just as Heather and Betty had been trained before. Here's Lyle's data:


Lyle followed a similar pattern to Betty and Heather. As you can see, once Lyle learned the sign, his episodes of crying and whining decreased substantially -- so signing may actually make life easier for these children and their parents. Geoffrey's results matched this pattern too.

One big potential weakness of this second experiment: In addition to being trained to give signs to signal what they wanted, the experimenters used the behaviorist strategy of extinction to discourage crying. Extinction is sort of like training in reverse: you give the child what they want only when they don't exhibit the behavior you're trying to discourage. So the babies were never rewarded for crying, only for producing the desired signs. Lyle's and Geoffrey's crying could very well have been eliminated through extinction alone.

Regardless, parents and children universally seem to appreciate the ability to communicate at an earlier age than would otherwise be possible. This study demonstrates that a rigorous laboratory procedure can yield these benefits in the real world.

Rachel H Thompson, Nicole M Cotnoir-Bichelman, Paige M McKerchar, Trista L Tate, Kelly A Dancho (2007). Enhancing Early Communication through Infant Sign Training Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40 (1), 15-23 DOI: 10.1901/jaba.2007.23-06

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Still, I can't help but think that what I think of when I think "communication" is a bit different than what new-agey parents think of.

This is more like behavioral training than language training, though I'll be honest, for all I know they may be similar phenomena.

My daughter is 27. I taught her basic signs when she was a baby, such as "more", mainly because I was taking a sign language class after her birth. I liked being able to communicate better with her. It was interesting watching her reach the point where she talked (poorly) along with the signing. For example, she could easily sign "more" but she said "mo" After she could talk, we dropped the signs. I was working full time when my sons were little, so I didn't teach them sign language.

I wonder if they've conducted a similar study without the extinction? Like you I think this could have been a major flaw in the experimental design - while signing behaviour increased, we can't tell whether the relationship between that and reduced whining is simply a correlation or influenced by the extinction process. I have a strange feeling though, that this may be another fad like flash cards!!

For our two kids, we learned some basic signs from the DVD 'Baby Babble'. (

It seemed to encourage them to communicate their needs, rather throw a tantrum when they wanted something.

We also used an 'extinction' approach to curtal crying, even though it was emotionally draining on our part.

After 5 years, they still remember the basics so I can sign, from across a room, to remind my kids to say 'please' & 'thank you' :)

I realize this is anecdotal as heck... but my in-laws have four new kids between them. All of them have been taught baby sign. And it definitely seems to work. The kids learned a couple/ few basic signs very early on, lots more signs as they got older... and they definitely seem less frustrated than other, non-signing babies I've known. They didn't just get taught "I want" signs like "more" and "milk," btw: they also know signs for animals and such, and they seem to enjoy being able to communicate about that stuff as well. (The parents didn't do extinction, I don't think: as far as I know, they responded to crying as well as to signing.)

Like I say... anecdotal. It's good to see it supported by real research. I do think more research is called for -- such as the issue you mentioned, of what happens when the kids are taught baby sign but crying isn't ignored. And replication is always a good time. But this is a good start.

How would you practice 'extinction' for baby crying? For example, if the child is crying due to a dirty diaper, you still have to change it which would 'reward' the behavior of crying.

We taught our daughter sign language -- or at least a few common signs, which as all we knew. We found that when she was hungry she would remain calm as long as one of us kept making the milk sign in front of her while the other got the bottle ready. Without the sign she'd start crying, which was stressful for everyone. So we found there were benefits in our being able to talk to our baby as well as with her being able to express her needs.

Good question, Tom. It's not easy, and it's not even necessarily recommended. Extinction requires very disciplined behavior on the part of the trainer. In this case, we're not talking about crying about a dirty diaper, but even in the case of diapers it could be done. Ideally you wait until the child stops crying before responding, but clearly in some cases this is impossible.

If the baby is crying absolutely incessantly, you could start by waiting for a relatively quiet period in the crying before addressing the problem. Eventually the child will learn that a *decrease* in crying is rewarded. Then you could up the ante and wait until the baby was silent before responding.

The difficulty with extinction training is that even a momentary lapse can set it back considerably. Crying is unpleasant for parents and may be damaging to the child, so allowing a baby to cry for extended periods while waiting for a lapse can be traumatic. Ultimately, assuming there's some way for the parent to know what the child needs, extinction should be an effective way to reduce crying -- which of course is beneficial to both parent and child. That's why the combination of signing and extinction is so appealing: it provides an alternative way for the child to tell the caregiver what it needs.

being well in tune with your baby always helps to keep stress down and communication up, whether you are interpreting formal signs, kid-invented signals, eye contact, foot wiggles, or whatever. My only concern with the signing in developmentally normal kids is that it becomes another way for parents to pressure their babies to perform.

(We have a baby sign book, but read it just for fun.)

Sarah, mom of 7

My son is 19 months and just beginning his verbal language explosion. I have no doubt that teaching him 'more', 'all done', 'milk', 'water', and 'please' eased his communication frustration from the very start. He would be playing with his food and we'd ask him if he was all done. Unless he gave us the sign back, he wasn't. At 12 months he was linking 'more-milk-please' and we were no longer worried if his verbal language skills would be delayed nor not. Our only frustration came at 18 months when our pediatrician didn't care about his signs and since he didn't yet have a 5-8 word, wanted to classify him as delayed.

By Tim, dad of 1 (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

with respect to baby sign being a "fad" (comment #3) - Linda Acredolo has been doing research in babies' non-verbal communication for decades (since the mid 1980s, if I'm interpreting her UC Davis CV correctly). The first link on this page summarizes some research she was involved with. It was, in fact, the research basis of her work that convinced me to try it with my children starting back in 1998. I know I'm just another anecdote, but my 3 boys all seemed to benefit from the fact that we were acknowledging and reinforcing their non-verbal communication (signs), and then extending it with formal attempts to create signs for things they were interested in.

I do think there is a certain aspect of faddish behavior surrounding it - all the books and supplies and classes and such that have popped up in the last 5 or 10 years - but the developmental basis is firm, and the underlying ideas could indeed be a "game changer" in how parents interact with very young children if applied appropriately.

Thanks for your interest in our work on infant sign training. The author of the original posting correctly identified the inclusion of extinction as an experimental confound in our work. Because sign training and extinction were implemented together, it is not possible to determine whether either would have been sufficient alone to decrease crying. A large body of research suggests that extinction was probably important to both reducing crying and increasing the appropriate sign. Additional studies suggest that extinction of signing was probably facilitated by the simulataneous teaching of an appropriate alternative.

I agree that it is very rarely appropriate to completely ignore crying. Our study was designed such that infants were required to wait only short periods for the designated reinforcer (e.g., food, attention). Because sign training occurred simultaneous with extinction, children were encouraged to sign after a few seconds and the reinforcer was delivered immediately.

Extinction does not imply witholding a reinforcer entirely, only breaking the depedent relationship between crying and the reinforcer. This can be done by providing the event (a) according to a time-based schedule, (b)contingent on some other behavior, (c) or only when the undesirable behavior is absent. So, extinction does not necessarily involve lettting the baby "cry it out."

By Rachel Thompson (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

Brian said:
This is more like behavioral training than language training, though I'll be honest, for all I know they may be similar phenomena.

Might I suggest something I tell with my students: Don't think in terms of 'communication;' instead, use the concept of coordination.

So for a basic example, neurons don't communicate, they coordinate.

In the context of this study, the children are learning to coordinate with their parents through signing. Eventually when their brains mature they will coordinate with spoken language.

By brian holt (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

I have to chime in on the anecdotal "it seems to help" thread--second-hand. A friend of mine had room-mates with a baby and they taught some basic signs for hungry, diaper, etc., which seemed to help reduce frustration and did reduce crying. My friend thought it was an inspired idea.

The "fad" is probably an attemp to "productize" the concept so as to sell things, just as management consultants rework their approaches every once in a while so that they can sell another round of courses. "Old wine in new bottles," we call it.

Absolutely sign helps lower frustration. My son started signing independently at 10 months and now at 18 months, he has about 50 signs and another 30 words (that I understand). He likes to communicate about animals, colors, foods, etc. He is able to help me sing "old mac donald" by suggesting animals (using signs) for me to then sing, and then he will add the animal noise when I pause after "with a..."
He is able to communicate when he is hungry or thirsty, wants his pacifier, wants to wash hands, brush teeth, watch a particular video, etc. This leads to him getting what he wants more quickly, so there is less frustration, and pretty much eliminates tantrums. I also think it stimulates his brain so that he has developed faster than others his age in terms of knowing all his colors, numbers, animals and such. Other friends who used sign said that it also made their children more verbal earlier.

ASL is the language of the Deaf--- it is a true and real language, and perfect for pre- & non-verbal children as we are prone to gesturing. My own children began to use signs at 6.5 months and their use of spoken language came early, more complete, and with more diverse vocabulary. It is truly beneficial. They are now elementary school students, quite the story tellers and wonderful readers. They also still love to sign.
To learn more or to get started with your own baby, check out

We began teaching our son ASL at birth. Definitely not baby sign. At 2, he is well ahead of the curve in speech and has successfully taught two babysitters his most important signs (such as eat, cookie, ice cream, and bear to name a few. LOL) When he sees people signing when we are out and about he goes up to them and 'chats', to their amusement usually.

We have had a lot of mixed reactions from people in both the hearing and the deaf communities. But we figure that learning in two modalities is the way to go. We probably won't be able to have him fully bilingual, since we aren't native speakers, but we like what it has done for him, and intend to do it with our second child.

I am wondering if there is such any experiment that have show any improvement in the intelligence levels of the babies who use ASL? I am asking because I am writing the paper on the idea for my Psychology 101.

And by the way, the ASL is not fad or new, the babies learned Sign Language since beginning of mankind, i.e. cavemen. I should know this since I am deaf myself.

By Eyethforce (not verified) on 28 Feb 2009 #permalink

Hi everyone. I am an ASL student in college and I need to interview a person through e-mail who has had success with teaching their child sign language. It is only one e-mail and will not be that many questions to answer. I need to include it in my research report for the end of the semester! Thanks!

By Michelle Schiavo (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink