Should You Teach Baby To Sign? Baby sign language is appealing to some new parents. Books, Web sites, DVD's teaching babies to sign all claim to encourage language development and strengthen the parent-child bond. Dr. Sydney Spiesel says, don't believe the hype.
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Should You Teach Baby To Sign?

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Should You Teach Baby To Sign?

Should You Teach Baby To Sign?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Baby sign language. That is the hot new thing for young parents. Dr. Sydney Spiesel is our on-call pediatrician and a professor at Yale Medical School. Syd, welcome back to Day to Day. I guess this is sign language to cover that period of time before the baby can actually talk. Does it work?

Dr. SYDNEY SPIESEL (School of Medicine, Yale University): The question is, does it work, and does it work for what? There a bunch of sort of theoretical notions. One of the most important ones is the idea it might lead to early stimulation of language, that language acquisition, really the process of language acquisition occurs well before speech. Children are learning what parents are saying to them, and what they see, and how they relate to the world. It might have, and some people have argued, it has both social and cognitive developmental benefits, maybe better child interaction.

And I think a lot of parents who are worried about kids being frustrated that they have all this stuff in them coming out, this is a chance for them to express themselves. And finally, the deaf community welcomed this as a way of leading to better interaction between the hearing community and the deaf community.

CHADWICK: But do you think it's really possible for a pre-language infant to understand American Sign Language and be able to communicate?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, in a very minimal way, yeah. In fact, the idea is that young kids have greater mastery over sort of the gross motor things that involve hand motion, and we know that kids can pick up - you know, right about the time they have very few verbal words, spoken words, they can have sometimes up to 20 sign words. So the answer is yes, but the harder question is how much difference does it make?

CHADWICK: And what's the answer to the harder question, or do we have one?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, to my satisfaction, I don't think we have one. Yeah, I think there's no really serious evidence of improvements specific to signing. I mean, there may be some benefit. I mean, there probably is some benefit in just the close relationship parents of parents having, doing this activity with their kids.

But whether the signing makes any difference is hard to know. It's hard to evaluate because the studies were in general poorly done. The commercial programs, which cost a lot of money, are not anything like the experimental programs anyway. So I'm very skeptical here.

CHADWICK: You're skeptical. There are all these DVDs and books and kind of training things to get the parents to be able to teach the kids to make all this work, and all that, you think, is not worth the money or the effort?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, maybe. I mean, there is some evidence from a few studies that there may be a little bit of brief improvement, for example, in spoken communication, only between one and two years, a few extra words, slightly better communication. But it certainly doesn't carry on in older - by the way, sadly, in terms of relationship between the hearing community and the deaf community, there's no carrying on of signing.

And there even may be a downside to it. You know, one of the things that we know is that joint parent and child attention to objects of natural interest to the child, you know, we're always sort of focused on what the kids are looking at and what they're interested in. Joint parent-child attention leads to, we know from studies, it leads to advance in language development. But maybe shifting that to hand, to teaching signing, that may be competing with the child's natural interest. So maybe it's possible, though that also hasn't been established, that it may even have somewhat negative effects.

CHADWICK: You know, Syd, I think what's really at the base of this is this intense desire on the part of parents to communicate to their children and better understand their children. Sign language seems like, well, maybe that's a possibility. But what do you suggest to parents like this, who want this kind of bond with their kid?

Dr. SPIESEL: Well, I always suggest for everything, interact with the child, read to the child, have fun with the child, and indeed, if signing turns out to be fun, do that. But, you know, the reality is that parents love their children, and there are a lot of vultures circling around looking to take advantage of that in children. And my own feeling is that this particular one, of the money that might be spent on these signing programs, probably would have a better payoff if it were even were devoted to meals for the parents.

CHADWICK: Dr. Sydney Spiesel. You can read his medical examiner column at slate.com. He's a regular contributor here at Day to Day. Syd, thanks again.

Dr. SPIESEL: Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: And there's more to come on Day to Day.

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