Saturday, 12 March 2011

Another parental dilemma: baby signing

We hear a lot about baby signing in the news; on the one hand there are those who say it enhances IQ and there are others including the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists who say it shouldn’t be used with children without a speech therapy need or Karen Pine’s team from the University of Hertfordshire, who say it could be linked with increased parental stress.
So what is a parent supposed to believe? How is a parent supposed to react? It’s yet another baffling issue for parents to figure out. Let's look  at the pros and cons to help you make up your own mind. 
What is signing?
Signing is the use of an extended gesture system usually Makaton, BSL (British Sign Language) or ASL (American Sign Language). We all use gesture in our everyday communication but if we feel we are having difficulty getting our message across e.g. when talking to a foreigner or maybe someone elderly, we will use it much more. Our attempts to explain using this added gesture are usually much more successful at helping the person understand and this is exactly the same with babies and young children.
The benefits of signing:  
·         It empowers babies to communicate earlier.
The more you know about all the factors involved in making speech sounds, the more you wonder how anyone manages it. The brain has to send a signal to the muscles, and then the airflow has to be co-ordinated with moving the tongue, mouth and gums (teeth in older children and adults). A baby can move their hands with some control from very early on.  Babies will not talk until 12months of age or later but they can indicate by gesture or sign much earlier. Early communication intention is about making choices and making your needs known. It is estimated that a baby understands a word several weeks before he can say it.
·         Increases self-esteem
Helping a child’s self esteem isn’t just telling them how well they’re doing. Being seen as having something worth saying and that someone will listen and respond, is a huge component in the development of self esteem in both children and adults. If you can’t get your message across, self esteem will always be affected. If the baby signs and is rewarded, he knows he has something worth saying even before he had the spoken vocabulary e.g. that he wants milk or that he’s hungry.
·         Reduces frustration
If someone can express themselves they will be less frustrated. Sign can also be used as part of the explanation about why something can’t happen or has finished. A case study done recently by Small Talk showed fewer toddler temper tantrums when sign was used. Kim Nash, mum to Oliver felt it really made a difference, ‘When you’re too upset to ‘hear’ explanations, a visual prompt may get through’. The general consensus of opinion is that up to 90% of temper tantrums are linked to frustration (Shelley Ensor 2010).
·         Enhances language skills.
Language is not just the words that are spoken. A huge part is the understanding of what is said to you. Children learn in different ways and use different means e.g. auditory (what they hear), kinaesthetic (what they can feel) and visual (what they can see). These days the visual channel is usually stronger so than the auditory channel. To learn words/vocabulary is mainly auditory, when this is boosted by a sign it capitalises on this strength and so it helps the chid to learn the words more quickly. At Horn End nurseries in Staffordshire, where they use sign as part of a consolidated approach to encourage language development, they know that if they sign to accompany an instruction e.g. perhaps with a preposition, the children will follow more quickly. They have had training from Small Talk about enhancing all communication opportunities. Deborah Falshaw, nursery owner and Early Years professional sees it as ‘another layer to encourage children’s understanding and expressive skills’. OFSTED have made particular reference to it in one of the nurseries who received outstanding across the board.
Katya O-Neill has used sign very effectively to help develop the communication skills of children whose first language is not English in her excellent ‘Sign a Story’ project in Luton. This was a pilot project which will undoubtedly be used in many other areas of the country where this is an issue.
·         Enhances bonding and enriches parent-child interaction
The main benefit of baby signing is that it gives the parent a reason to interact very early on. The sign is the vehicle for the enhanced interaction. The more communication attempts are recognised and rewarded the more they will develop. The less a baby is interacted with, the slower the brain connections necessary for language and communication will develop. Studies have linked a lack of communication with babies with later difficulties including ADHD and a lack of social understanding especially empathy. Sue Gerhardt’s Book ‘Why love matters’ is an excellent reference for this area.
·         Makes signing socially acceptable
One of the benefits of it being widely accepted is that parents of children with a clinical need to sign are more likely to agree to their chid signing. Previously, when a speech and language therapist wanted to introduce sign to assist a child’s understanding or expressive language skills, parents frequently felt that it would single their child out even further. A greater use in all children prevents this and promotes better acceptance.

What about disadvantages?
·         Will it stop my baby talking?
One of the biggest concerns is that children will not talk if they can sign more easily. If it’s done correctly, this won’t happen. A good deal of research has been done to address this and has shown us that babies who sign do not have an increased risk of delayed speech/language. In fact, research indicates that many babies who sign actually go on to have early, advanced speech. It’s very important, however, that parents talk as well as sign.  Christina Schabow speech and language pathologist from the US says, ‘Ultimately, signing will NOT cause your baby to have delayed speech. It WILL be one of the best things you do to help prepare your baby for talking!’
·         It shouldn’t be sold as a must-do for parents
All the previous well known research was done by Americans, however, we have our own team here in the UK now led by Professor Karen Pine, she feels that signing classes should not be sold as a necessity to all parents. There is perhaps, a great deal of commercialism which puts pressure on middle class parents to take it up. It’s the fastest growing trend in pre-school activities in the 21st century. She feels that its adding to parental pressure with families who already know how to interact and whose offspring are benefitting from stimulating, communicative homes. Her research at the University of Hertfordshire does not back up the American findings i.e. there is no proof that children have higher IQs or better vocabularies than the control group.  
·         Will it add to my stress levels?
Karen’s team also felt it was linked to high stress levels in parents. However, having a baby or toddler is a stressful experience anyway so parents of little ones are very likely to report increased stress
 It is a fact that anything which helps communication WILL decrease stress levels in adults, babies and children.
·         Is it just for middle class families?
Shelley Ensor from The Little Signers Club reports: "We've seen interest in baby signing increase dramatically over the last five years.  In our classes we see thousands of parents from very different backgrounds every year and they all want the same thing - the very best for their baby.  In my experience signing babies are more eager to progress to speech and their communication development is generally accelerated. How confusing - and patronising - to have it suggested that only babies and parents from certain backgrounds should experience the sheer wonder of baby signing."

·         Or should it only be used to target families who don’t talk to their children?
In any clinical caseload there are children with language deprivation. It is however, misleading to believe that only children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds will have problems which are a result of language deprivation. As an independent therapy team, Small Talk have clients from all backgrounds, ‘we’ve just introduced sign to a child whose parents are both barristers... she is the one of the most language deprived children I’ve met’ reports Franky Shepperson SLT for Small Talk.
·         There’s some wild claims made that I don’t believe
Some of the American research promotes the idea that signing will somehow create young geniuses with higher IQs and vocabulary than their peers who have not experienced signing. This however, is not supported by recent more valid research.

·         There’s no regulation of teachers, anyone can set up
Unfortunately this is reportedly true, so it is that there are some classes who may be are more interested in taking the money than enhancing communication. However, these are the exception. There are some great teachers with excellent classes available nationwide. Shelley Ensor at Little Signers Club feels that it may be time to begin regulation of classes to ensure adequate knowledge, training and integrity of teachers.
Ultimately, there is a major concern about the general levels of speech, language and communication which is resulting in up to 50% of children starting school without the necessary levels of spoken language development according to a Government report by John Bercow in 2009. If the signing was part of a programme to target national parental interaction and also used as part of a consolidated approach to reach families who don’t know how to communicate with their offspring or may be don’t even realise they should, then that would be much better way forwards. Good signing classes such as Libby’s Smart Talkers, Shelley’s Little Signers Club and Kasha’s Sign2learn sessions are part of such a regime so that they are developmentally planned and incorporate language and communication aims too. ‘The baby signing we do is also a forum for discussing parental interaction and the development of communication’, says Libby.   
So... if you are interested in knowing more about baby signing locally, then go ahead but be cautious.
·         Check out the teacher and the class, talk to other parents there.
·         Don’t expect too much of yourself or your little one.
·         If you see it as fun activity to share which will help communication between you, then great!
·         Just remember that you have to talk too.
·         Sign is only a part of your communication together. See Smart Talkers website for tips about how to talk to your child, you can give yourself a pat on the back if you are..... If not you’ll see simple free tips to help you

What parents say:

“I think somehow it’s easier for mums to develop ways of communicating with babies, they seem innately able to read those subtle cues, tell the difference between cries, but baby signing unlocks some of these mysteries for everyone. As a father I feel like I can meet my son’s needs now. When he first signed to me that he needed a nappy change (at 4 months old), and he did, I was bowled over!”  Ben, signing Daddy to Fin

"I decided to take Sam to baby signing classes for two reasons.  Firstly for some much needed adult company and more so because Sam was such an inquisitive and vivacious little boy.  I was becoming so despondent - needless to say tired and frustrated - by his growing dissatisfaction, no matter what I did with him or where I took him he seemed to be constantly needing more!  I was the Mummy at your average mother and baby group desperately trying to chat and feel normal again...whilst all the other little babies happily played on the mat, Sam was fidgety, frustrated and needed constant attention.  I was fighting the tide expecting him to play happily whilst I indulged in a cup of tea and chocolate muffin.  Sam wasn't that sort of child and so I decided to do something for the both of us.  It was a crucial turning point and the best decision I have ever made in what had so far been a hard and emotional first six months of being a Mummy.  I truly believe that taking Sam to baby signing classes opened a gateway in his mind, enhanced his brain development and helped him to become a calmer, more communicative baby.  I looked forward to each class as the pleasure and involvement Sam showed during the sessions was a breath of fresh air to me.  No frustration, no fidgeting...instead there were smiles, laughter and one contended little boy who I was at last able to understand and enjoy.... Oh and I made some wonderful friends too who made me feel very normal again."
Frances, signing Mummy to Sam

Libby Hill Specialist Speech & Language Therapist Oct 2010

Katja O’Neill
Debbie Falshaw
Why love matters-how affection shapes a baby’s brain by Sue Gerhardt pub by Bruner-Routledge 2004
Will signing stop my baby talking Christina Schabow www.smarttalkers.blogspot
To Sign or not to Sign?  The Impact of Encouraging Infants to Gesture on Infant Language and Maternal Mind-Mindedness by Elizabeth Kirk, Neil Howlett, Karen J Pine and Ben (C) Fletcher University of Hertfordshire School of Psychology
Hands on mothering: Improving infant communication in  low socio-economic families with gesture Karen Pine & Elizabeth Kirk University of Hertfordshire School of Psychology

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