An explosion of interest in “baby sign language”, a technique used by aspirational parents to communicate with their babies before they can talk, has led to classes opening around Britain.
Built on a child’s tendency to gesture, it is the norm in some American nurseries and has provoked such interest in Britain that it is now being offered by some nursery chains here.
Advocates claim that it enables a baby of six months or more, with normal hearing, to signal when it is in pain or wants more food.
They say very young children lack the motor skills to produce speech but have the physical ability to sign.
Signing — based on American or British sign language — is also said to reduce the tantrums that accompany the “terrible twos”, leaving more time for a child to learn.
For example, a sign for milk is like milking a cow. A mother squeezes her fist and says the word before giving her baby milk. A baby crying because it wants milk will, say experts, do the sign.
Alternatively, if a baby is teething or ill, it can sign for medicine by putting an index finger up to its mouth, then pushing its finger into the palm of its opposite hand and making a circular motion.
Critics argue that signing may hinder speech because the baby becomes lazy and does not learn to talk quickly.
Penelope Leach, a research psychologist, cast doubt on whether a baby’s hand-eye co-ordination is good enough to do complicated gestures that could be understood properly by parents.
Dr Sue Hallam, of the Institute of Education in London, said an intuitive mother could read a baby’s cries and other noises without recourse to signs.
But Dr Gwyneth Doherty- Sneddon, a developmental psychologist at Stirling University and the author of Children’s Unspoken Language, said: “So far, all the research has been positive.”
She said the advantages of signing had been well known for years in communities serving children with language delays, autism, Down’s syndrome and deafness.
“There is a danger that very competitive parents might go into an overkill on it, but that’s not advocated by anyone promoting signing that I know,” she said.
Her 22-month-old son began signing at 14 months. “He uses about 80 signs and probably says 25 words. In the early days he would ask to go to the beach by using the sign for water, or ask for an apple rather than something else to eat.”
Baby signing classes for parents have been held recently in London, Cardiff, Brighton, Maidenhead, Eastleigh in Hants and Sunninghill in Berkshire.
Dr Joseph Garcia, an early childhood development researcher, came up with the Sign With Your Baby system after seeing a 10-month-old deaf child communicate with its parents in a more sophisticated way than he had seen with hearing children of the same age.
He claims that babies who sign have an IQ 12-14 points higher than other children by the age of seven, although he said that he was not encouraging parents to produce “Einstein babies”.
Dr Garcia, a father of four from Seattle, who adopted a baby 18 months ago, said: “My daughter has half the tantrums others have because she is not so frustrated.”
Claims that signing delayed speech were “hogwash”, he said.