MELANIE GERSTEN started signing to her son, Zachary, when he was a newborn. At 3 months he started using the sign she had taught him for milk, and by 9 months he was developing some degree of fluency, picking up most signs she presented to him.
Both Gersten and her son have superb hearing. The Gardena mom simply hoped to make communication easier -- and begin it earlier. "Signing with Zachary wasn't only helpful, it was also just so much fun," she says.
Like an increasing number of parents, Gersten was making the most of her infant's natural urge to communicate -- capitalizing on a window of opportunity in which infants gesture long before they talk. Such gesturing is a natural part of any baby's development. Even without prompting, a baby offered food when he is not hungry might shake his head vigorously; a baby whose mother leaves the house might wave her hand.
By actively teaching their pre-verbal babies to express themselves with sign language, parents are taking such gesturing a step further. For example, babies could learn to ask for a book by placing their hands together (palm to palm) and then opening the hands while maintaining contact between the pinkie fingers or to ask for food by rubbing their tummies. (Some baby-signing programs recommend using only gestures from American Sign Language; others believe children should be allowed to create their own gestures.)
Advocates of ASL believe that its signs are easy for babies to learn and that it offers the additional benefit of being widely known and understood. Proponents of non-ASL based programs, on the other hand, say ASL signs are often too abstract and that the gestures babies and parents create themselves are easier to use.
Babies exposed to signs regularly from an early age can generally begin using them effectively by 8 or 9 months -- even before they can say them.
Proponents of signing suggest it provides children with far more than just rudimentary communication skills. They say signing can improve a baby's intellect, increase self-esteem and happiness, reduce fussiness and temper tantrums, improve problem-solving skills, and help toddlers get along better with each other. They also say it enhances early language and literacy skills, enabling children to speak sooner and develop larger vocabularies. Some even attribute significant increases in IQ to it.
Some evidence supports such claims. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health and reported in 2000 endorsed the contention that signing yielded verbal benefits. "The study showed signing facilitates learning to talk," says Linda Acredolo, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis and the report's coauthor. Until age 3, children who had been instructed in signing had an advantage over nonsigning children in language development.
"The study also found that signing offers an intellectual advantage," says Acredolo. At 8 years, children who were taught to sign were found to have IQs 12 points higher than their nonsigning counterparts.
The study's authors offer a variety of theories for this apparent benefit. They suggest that the observed IQ advantage associated with signing might be the result of "jump-starting" a baby's intellectual development. They also speculate that the social and emotional benefits of signing, such as higher self-confidence, can have long-term effects on IQ.
But the study involved too few children to definitively prove the concept and justify sweeping conclusions. Researchers studied the language development of only 32 children who were taught sign language during infancy (comparing it with the development of a similar group of children who were not exposed to signing) and tested the IQ of only 19 of the children at age 8.
Even those with a commercial interest in signing are cautious about their claims. "Anecdotally we hear a lot of things about signing," says Vince Kiteley, director of sales and marketing at Sign2Me, a Seattle-based company that markets baby sign language products. "But there aren't a lot of long-term studies that really identify how it affects children."
Although more studies will likely be conducted, it may be difficult to prove what some advocates consider to be the most valuable benefits. "The most important benefits are the emotional ones," Acredolo says. "It allows families a richer connection because they're better able to communicate. It also allows babies to share their world with their parents."
Gersten wholeheartedly agrees. In fact, she grew so convinced of the benefits of signing that she became an instructor of baby sign language.
Although her son dropped most signs as soon as he learned the words for them, she hopes he will start using them again when his baby brother is born in October. "I can't wait for him to help communicate with the baby," Gersten says. "I'm really excited about that."
Whatever future research proves, baby sign language is a way for parents and children to interact, and a surefire way to amuse family and friends.
Dr. Valerie Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.