The pros and cons of teaching babies sign language

Paula Wolfson,

WASHINGTON – Every parent has been there: The frustration of trying to figure out what a crying baby wants or needs.

Now, some parents say a new tool helps open lines of communication with children even before they can talk: Sign language. Or at least a limited form of the signing long used by the deaf or those with hearing loss.

Baby First, a cable channel devoted to infants and toddlers, was one of the first to latch on to the trend. The network recently released a sign language DVD for little ones.

“It is pretty amazing, but babies eight and nine months old can actually express exactly what they want with signing,” says Sharon Rechter, co-founder of Baby First.

Rechter says they have the ability to learn basic signs, and that a 1-year-old can pick up as many as 10 to 15 signs.

Signing provides a way for the child and their parent to communicate and save a lot of frustration, and that’s the main benefit, she says.

But some child development experts offer words of caution.

Dr. Penny Glass, who heads the Child Development Program at Children’s National Medical Center, says signing is no substitute for basic interaction. Before babies learn to sign, they need to focus on what she calls “common gestures.”

The gestures are as simple as an infant extending its arms as a sign it wants to be picked up and held, or a child responding to a cue from an adult.

“Very often parents forget the power of the ‘point’ gesture where you are able to say to the baby ‘show me, show mommy’ and the child points at the direction of what it is that they want,” says Glass.

She says the best course is to mix these gestures with talking to the baby. Glass notes that before infants can talk, they key in on the sounds of words and facial expressions.

“What nine month olds are doing … they are watching adults’ mouths a lot and they are forming their mouths even in shapes the adult is doing,” Glass says.

She says nine months is far too young to learn sign language, and parents should fight the urge to give their babies an edge by watching a DVD. Instead, she suggests talking to the child and gesturing, which will help communication come naturally.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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