Baby sign research

Baby sign encourages parents to communicate with their baby using gestures that stand for everyday objects or concepts, such as 'milk', 'hot', and 'where'.

Our team of psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire has been researching the impact that sharing a gestured system of communication has on a range of developmental outcomes.

Key projects are:

  • Impact of symbolic gesture on infant language development
  • The psychological impact on mothers of gesturing with infants
  • Symbolic gesture, pretend play and maternal mind-mindedness
  • International infant sign research

Impact of symbolic gesture on infant language development

Dr Liz Kirk conducted the first longitudinal randomised control trial to evaluate the benefits of encouraging baby sign (or symbolic gesture).

This study found no support for previous claims that encouraging gesturing with babies accelerates their language development (Kirk et al. 2013).

To account for a significant gap in the literature of the impact of encouraged gesture on infant outcomes, the research team conducted parallel research with low socioeconomic status families.

With funding from Hertfordshire Country Council and in collaboration with Hertfordshire Speech and Language Therapy team, we developed a parenting programme to improve the quality and quantity of interaction between lower-income parents and their babies.

The sessions are well received by parents, and our preliminary data analyses suggest they are bringing on the children’s language development and have improved the home learning environment.

The psychological impact on mothers of gesturing with infants

Funding from the ESRC enabled the research team to explore the wider, non-linguistic impacts of gestural communication with infants. The objectives of this research were to establish whether gesturing with babies i) reduced parental stress, and ii) improves the interaction between mother and infant.

Contrary to the claims of baby sign companies, we found that mothers who attended baby sign classes were more stressed than mothers who attended other mother and baby classes.

Because parental stress was not related to the amount of time that mothers had been attending the baby sign class, we suggest that mothers who had higher pre-existing stress were attracted to the advertised benefits of baby sign classes, including ‘reduced frustration for baby and parent’ and ‘a better relationship with your child’ (Howlett et al. 2010).

We did however uncover some benefits from gesturing with an infant on the quality of mother-infant interaction. Mothers who had been trained to use a small set of gestures in the context of a longitudinal study demonstrated higher levels of maternal mind-mindedness than mothers who were not trained to gesture.

Mind-mindedness refers to a mother’s proclivity to treat her infant as an individual with its own mind, demonstrated through appropriate maternal responsiveness to infants’ verbal and non-verbal behaviour (Kirk et al. 2013).

Symbolic gesture, pretend play and maternal mind-mindedness

Given that we have identified a relationship between symbolic gesture and maternal mind-mindedness, our current research is examining whether the use of symbolic gestures within mother-infant dyads promotes earlier and more frequent pretend play.

University of Hertfordshire psychology undergraduate Emily Stears, has been employed as a research assistant on this project funded by the BPS.