A recent study published in the journal Infant and Child Development looked at the issue of increased stress levels in mothers who went to Baby Sign Language classes versus those who did not take these classes. Using what they call the Parenting Stress Index and other measures, they concluded that, in fact, mothers who attended these types classes reported higher stress levels associated with their babies than those who did not. Interestingly, though, they did not see a link between how frequently the signs were actually used and the reported stress levels—meaning that mothers who used signs more did not report more (or less) stress than those who used the signs less frequently and vice versa. The authors suggest other reasons the class-attending moms may have reported more stress. One reason they suggest is that these mothers, by seeking out the baby sign language classes, are wanting the “best” of their child and have higher (or possibly unrealistic) expectations on their child than moms who do not seek out such classes.
I have several ideas about this—but, here is the primary one: I think parents are stressed about teaching/learning Baby Sign language because they are doing it with the wrong emphasis. I am a HUGE fan of teaching sign language to babies! But– The most important thing for you to remember about teaching your baby sign language is….
Your goal is NOT to teach your baby sign language!!
Your goal is to teach your child cause-and-effect. Baby does “x,” and the effect of that, is that is causes Mommy or Daddy to do “y” and if he’s really lucky, “z!” I have parents telling me all the time, “My baby (toddler) knows over 150 signs.” And, while that is very impressive—that should not be your goal as a parent, when engaging in signs with your baby. If your child knows 10 signs (and that is a high estimate!) by the time he is around 1 year of age, he has, in my opinion, mastered baby sign language! He’s done well. If you can show him even 5-7 simple signs (e.g., more, all-done, please, help, milk, eat, drink), that is all he needs. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake! Because remember—he doesn’t need the knowledge of the SIGNS as much as he needs the knowledge that he can get what he wants & regulate his environment by doing something other than screaming or crying. As soon as he begins producing signs, it is time to start upping the ante, getting him to vocalize and making sounds! Both of my boys spoke their first words before they ever produced a sign– and, I think that is because I didn’t emphasize the actual learning of the signs– the emphasis was on the communication of wants and needs and this idea of cause and effect. This is one of the strategies we teach in our Lingo-Roo Language Blast.
But, remember as you teach and model sign language to your baby—you are modeling this cause-and-effect the entire time. For example, if you start at the age of 5 months (the recommended age of some well-marketed baby sign language programs), and even just at meal times, model the sign “more” before 5 of his bites (not stressful, right?), you begin showing him that HE must do something in order to cause YOU to do something. Over time, the baby should learn this idea of cause-and-effect, whether or not the actual sign for “more” is ever learned. Cause-and-effect is one of the basic foundations of language and why we communicate. We produce signs, words, or non-verbal gestures to cause other people to do what we need them to do. To me, this is the vital, take-away lesson of baby sign language. If your baby chooses to NEVER produce a single sign, he has still received concentrated teaching of this cause-and-effect concept.
So, if a parent is “stressed” about their child learning the actual signs, then yes, baby sign language programs/classes could be stressful. But, if a parent views the process itself of teaching signs as most important—showing the baby a way to manage his environment and teaching him cause-and-effect, then the process is successful, regardless of what the baby does, or how quickly (if ever) he produces signs. Engaging in the process of TEACHING the signs is just as important as the learning outcomes of the baby. So, relax! You are doing a great job! You are actively engaging your child, talking to him, and modeling language for him—You are on the right track!