Baby sign lan­guage Help or trendy fad?

Is Baby Sign Lan­guage re­ally all that it is touted to be: the ul­ti­mate baby-par­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nique? Camilla Rankin finds out HELP OR TRENDY FAD?

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

BE­COM­ING A PAR­ENT can be over­whelm­ing, con­fus­ing and let’s face it: a lit­tle scary. And so we reach for any ad­vice, tool or tech­nique that will help us not only sur­vive, but be the best par­ents we pos­si­bly can. This is es­pe­cially true when your seem­ingly help­less lit­tle baby is cry­ing out for you to do some­thing and you have ab­so­lutely no idea what that some­thing is; or when your pre­ver­bal tod­dler is hav­ing a frus­tra­tionin­duced melt­down.

De­ci­pher­ing what it is their baby or young tod­dler’s cries, grunts, cries and out­bursts are try­ing to tell them be­fore they turn into those marathon cry-outs is right up there on the new par­ents’ most Googled list – along with “How to get your baby to sleep through the night”; “How to not raise a fussy eater” and “Will I ever have sex again?”.

And this is why there are so many tools and tech­niques avail­able to help par­ents un­der­stand what all the fuss is about. There are apps such as the In­fant Cries Trans­la­tor that com­pares your baby’s cry to its data­base of more than 200 000 recorded baby cries to tell you if your baby is tired, hun­gry, in pain or needs a nappy change. Pro­grams such as Dun­stan Baby Lan­guage claim to teach par­ents to “de­code” baby cries into five easy-to-recog­nise baby sounds: “eh” means “burp me”, “neh” means “I am hun­gry”, “heh” means “I am un­com­fort­able”, “owh” means “I am tired” and “eairh” means “I have a wind”. But by far the most pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful tech­nique to hit the par­ent­ing world is Baby Sign Lan­guage (BSL).

WHAT IS BABY SIGN LAN­GUAGE? De­vel­oped in the early 1990s, BSL is a tech­nique in which 50 explicit hand ges­tures and sig­nals, or signs, are used to re­lay sim­ple mes­sages be­tween a baby and a carer. These hand­shapes and mo­tions are di­vided into five rou­tines: morn­ing, night, out­side, inside and play, and are made up of con­crete nouns (milk, bed, ap­ple, mom), as well as feel­ings (I love you, happy, hurt) and ac­tions (sleep, drink, eat, more), all rep­re­sent­ing baby’s ev­ery­day needs and emo­tions. As each sign is ges­tured, the rel­e­vant word is said to re­in­force the con­nec­tion be­tween the hand sig­nal and its mean­ing.

It is a straight­for­ward tech­nique to learn in a sim­ple work­shop for par­ents and car­ers, and as soon as your baby has some in­de­pen­dent hand con­trol – usu­ally around six months old – she is old enough to learn to sign. It must be noted that BSL is com­pletely in­de­pen­dent of the sign lan­guages of the Deaf com­mu­nity.

When BSL hit the par­ent­ing scene it took off in a flurry of classes, ma­te­ri­als, work­shops and hand flap­ping suc­cess. BSL came with prom­ises to en­hance your baby and tod­dlers’ lan­guage skills, cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment, bilin­gual­ism, their in­ter­est in lit­er­a­ture, to re­duce frus­tra­tion and tantrums, and even in­crease self-es­teem and IQ. But has it lived up to all of its claims?

BSL – THE TRUTH As with any new trend, it takes a while for the sci­en­tific re­search to catch up and BSL is no dif­fer­ent. And it turns out that there is lit­tle ev­i­dence to sup­port most of BSL’S cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment claims. Re­search re­cently pub­lished in the jour­nal Child De­vel­op­ment, by Dr Liz Kirk, showed that BSL does not en­hance a baby’s de­vel­op­ment, lan­guage abil­i­ties or in­tel­li­gence. She states, “Baby sign­ing has be­come big busi­ness and moth­ers, par­tic­u­larly first time mums or less con­fi­dent par­ents, feel the pres­sure to do it. Some even think, ‘If I don’t do it and ev­ery­one else is do­ing it, I must be a bad mother’.”

CHUCK IT OUT WITH THE BATH WA­TER? NOT YET… There is also no ev­i­dence at all that us­ing BSL will harm your baby or neg­a­tively im­pact your child in any way. All is not lost. In fact, the same re­search also found that those fam­i­lies that used BSL were more in tune with their ba­bies. “It does en­cour­age par­ents to think of their baby as an in­di­vid­ual with a mind,” says Dr Kirk, “and re­spond to their non-ver­bal clues”, which in turn helps foster closer bonds as well as in­de­pen­dence.

And there are still those baby sign­ing ex­perts who swear by BSL. Johannesburg’s Ju­nior Col­leges Castil­lian in­tro­duced BSL with great suc­cess into its cur­ricu­lum when teach­ers of the 18-month-old group raised con­cerns at the level of frus­tra­tion shown by the tod­dlers in their care. “In this age group, chil­dren are just learn­ing to talk, and tantrums and out­bursts are com­mon,” ex­plains head El­iz­a­beth Steenkamp. “Our school caters for a hugely di­verse learner and teacher body, all speak­ing var­i­ous home lan­guages: Chi­nese, Setswana, Se­sotho, English, isizulu and Afrikaans, so we needed a com­mon com­mu­ni­ca­tion tool.”

“We al­ways try to be ahead of the curve, and re­searched ways that could help ease these lev­els of frus­tra­tion and came across BSL. We sent our teach­ers on the course, in­stalled it into the cur­ricu­lum for our six-to-24month-old classes and gave the par­ents a work­shop,” says El­iz­a­beth. “The results have been phe­nom­e­nal: there are fewer tantrums, the teach­ers feel more con­fi­dent that they un­der­stand what each child needs, the group works bet­ter to­gether and they have a stronger bond.”

THE BARE FACTS OF BSL In the end BSL may not give your baby or tod­dler some in­tel­li­gence edge, or teach them to talk any ear­lier than they nor­mally would, but it is fun and it could help you to bond bet­ter with your baby. “Any­thing that helps a par­ent, par­tic­u­larly a less con­fi­dent one, to slow down and ac­tively lis­ten to their child, be it ver­bal or non-ver­bal, is a win­ner in my books” says child and fam­ily ther­a­pist Geral­dine Thomas. YB

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