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  • Writer's pictureKatia Burdick

Do Baby Signs Delay Talking?

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

I get this question all the time. The answer is NO!

The foundation of communication is the idea that we have influence over our environment with our words or actions. If I say "stop", something will happen. If I wave hello to someone, they will wave back. We have to help children learn that purposeful language (either verbal or nonverbal) will meet their needs.

If a child wants a cookie but does not have the words to say "cookie", they might cry or whine until they get it. They have equated crying/whining with getting what they want. My goal as an SLP is to teach them a much more functional (and pleasant!) way to interact.

As much as we want to, we cannot make a child talk. We can't reach down into their throat and pull out words. However, we CAN absolutely help a child make a meaningful action and then reward them for it. This is nonverbal communication! In the cookie example, I do the baby sign for "cookie" while pairing it with the spoken word "cookie". If the child does not copy the action, I reach over and help their hands do the sign for "cookie". I CELEBRATE and exclaim "YOU TOLD ME COOKIE! YOU WANT A COOKIE!" and give them one. Though it sounds simple, the child has learned "'if I do ____ I get _____." Doing a gesture for "cookie" is much better than a tantrum;)

Many parents worry that by using a sign, their child's verbal language will be delayed. I have never seen this happen. In fact, studies show that gestures/signs positively influence language and facilitate talking. Once the child has learned that "gestures=what I want", we can increase the demand. For example, I might now wait until the child imitates the initial syllable while doing the sign to reward them. The easiest word to start with is "more"-- as the "mmmmm" sound is very visual and you can help push the lips together. Once we have some verbal imitation, we can build on that!

Early language is a big passion of mine. Please reach out if you are concerned about your child's communication development. I offer in-person therapy as well as virtual parent coaching options!

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