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?
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