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Baby signs are a system of non-verbal communication designed to encourage babies and toddlers who have yet to develop spoken language skills to communicate their needs. Most signs are loosely based on American Sign Language, although some modifications have been made to make the gestures easier for children to learn. Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn are two of the researchers credited with popularizing the idea of using sign language to practice talking with your baby.
The vocabulary of baby sign language is fairly simple. Common baby signs include gestures for “food”, “change me”, “sleepy”, and “help”. These are known as need-based signs, since they encourage a child to communicate his/her basic needs. Baby signs such as “puppy”, “car”, “television,” or “book” are called highly motivating signs, since they are intended to encourage a child to express interest in a particular object or activity.
Parents who practice baby signs with their children say signing with your baby offers many benefits. By allowing babies to communicate when they are hungry, angry, or tired, frustration levels are reduced for everyone in the family. The time spent teaching your child to sign may also be a great bonding experience.
However, not everyone is convinced baby sign is useful. Some researchers believe children who can express themselves through this form of sign language will be less motivated to develop their verbal skills. Others feel the process of teaching baby signs is too time consuming and encourages parents to unnecessarily pressure their children.
If you’re interested in learning more about baby signs, there are a number of instructional materials offering tips on teaching sign language to your child. Books and websites tend to provide an informal approach to signing with your baby, while DVDs offer the opportunity for structured lessons. Choosing the best method of teaching baby signs requires careful consideration of your child’s temperament and your own interest level.
Although most of the references available for parents interested in baby signs focus on teaching children who are simply too young for spoken language, there is some evidence that baby signs may be useful for older children who suffer from developmental disabilities. For example, simple baby signs can be useful for autistic children who lack the capacity for verbal communication. There have been several cases where severely autistic children showed a decrease in aggression and tantrums once they were able to use signs to communicate their needs to parents and other caregivers.
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