Is it okay to use infant (“baby”) signs with my child?
Throughout my time working with families and talking with friends, I have come across a common misconception or worry that the use of infant sign language will slow or even prevent verbal language development. However, that is simply not the case.
So, quick answer to the title question above: Absolutely yes!
A language is a system of symbols that signify meaning to others, specifically those that understand that same system. A sign is a symbol just like a verbally spoken word is a symbol. So regardless of mode, signing ‘more’ or saying, “more” aloud, they are using a specific symbol to communicate a specific want or need.
The recommendation is for infant signs to be introduced to typically developing babies around six to eight months of age. Their use has been shown to reduce frustration (both parent and child) and facilitate language development. They also play a huge role with babies/toddlers that have delayed speech-language development.
Children learn to imitate and use gestures (like waving, pointing) before they learn to imitate and use sounds in words. Signs come in especially handy during this time, when children have the capacity to use language, but their mouths cannot yet execute the complex movements required for speech. The use of these signs facilitates joint attention, teaches cause-effect, builds imitation skills, and helps establish bonds between child and caregiver, all of which are vital skills preceding use of sounds and words.
It is in our nature to take the path of least resistance, that is, as soon as kids are able to use words, they drop the infant signs. Many times, the signs that they were using consistently become their first verbally spoken words.
Please see below for a few examples of infant signs (images via Boardmaker).
Ana Thrall, MS, CF-SLP