Q: Children are able to understand language before they are able to speak it. I've been reading a lot about the benefits of teaching sign language to young children as a simple way to help them express themselves. I'm worried that if I start this with my 7-month-old, he may become too comfortable with the signing. I'm afraid he won't speak out loud as much if he thinks signing does the job just fine. Would that happen?

A: There is no compelling research evidence that teaching children to sign will cause delays in speaking. In fact, there’s some evidence that learning to sign is linked to better language development. For instance, one study by Dr. Susan Goodwyn and her colleagues compared a group of children whose parents modeled and encouraged symbolic gestures to a group of children whose parents did not know about sign training. The children were followed from 11 to 36 months, and the sign training group performed better on the majority of language measures.

Gesturing is a natural part of communication. Even if you don’t deliberately teach him to do so, your baby will probably learn to raise his arms when he wants to be picked up, to turn his head away or shake his head “no” when he doesn’t want to eat something, and to point when he wants something or finds something interesting. At 12 months, children generally use about one symbolic gesture per minute, often accompanied by sounds. By 24 months, children communicate mostly with words, but they also use about five gestures per minute.

Deliberately teaching your child gestures can help him communicate before he can talk. It can also help your baby feel less frustrated, because he can tell you what he wants or needs. Say the words aloud as you show your child gestures, to help connect signs to spoken language.

Answered by Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D.