Baby Sign Language: What is it good for?

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Baby sign language is very popular these days. There are classes and online resources and it’s all based on the premise that signing with your baby introduces a host of benefits from better communication to long-lasting language advantage. A very recent study done by a group of researchers from Hertfordshire University put the premise to the test, and examined the effects of baby sign language on language development.

What they did

The authors recruited forty 8-month-old infants and their mothers, and randomly assigned each mother-infant dyad to one of four groups: a) British Sign Language training (for mothers); b) symbolic gesturing system (gestures adapted from baby-signing courses) training; c) “verbal training” (the mothers got the instructions to use the same words as the mothers in the other two groups, but there was no signing information); and d) no intervention at all. The design is beautiful. The researchers even made sure that the same words were used in all the “treatment” groups, and they assigned the same number of female and male infants (5 and 5) to each group, to control for the known gender effects. I particularly like the fact that they had not one, but two control groups (verbal training and no intervention). They followed up on the kids until the kids were 20 months old, and called the mothers every two weeks to do a phone interview (and probably mostly to remind them to use the signs).

What they found

The authors report that there was no effect at all of the intervention. The authors write: “The overall language development of all infants was similar regardless of the intervention that they experienced.” (pp. 579). Infants in the intervention groups acquired the target words a little earlier than the children in the no-intervention group, but that seems to be the extent of the impact of treatment. The authors conclude that there is no benefit to encouraging baby signing, at least when it comes to language development.


Here is my problem with this beautifully designed study: they had 40 infants total in their sample. That’s a very small sample size. In general, effects in child development tend to be small – there are a lot of factors in play, and no one thing determines something as complex as a child’s language skills. From a statistics point of view, the smaller the effect, the larger the sample you need to see it in the data. I ran the math, and their chances of detecting a small effect were 12%. In other words, there very well may be a small effect of using sign language with babies, but that in this study the sample was not big enough to detect it. Now, it’s true that this probably means that there is no huge benefit to signing from a language point of view. But the authors make it sound like there is no point at all: in talking about mothers who sign up for baby signing classes and such they say, “the efforts of these mothers may be unnecessary.” (pp. 586).

My two cents

I personally think there is a huge difference for the mother and for the mother-baby communication when using signs. I didn’t use signs with my son until he started daycare. When he started daycare (he was 9 months old and did half-days for a couple of months) he started signing because he learned it from the daycare workers. They taught me some of the signs, and it made the communication so much easier. He could say what he wanted – not everything he wanted, obviously – and I could see it was making him feel “empowered”. Not being able to communicate, by the way, is one of the main sources of frustration and tantrums in the second and third years of life (and why toddlers are so “terrible”). To me, preventing tantrums is most definitely a benefit of using signs with babies 🙂

Did you use signs with your baby? Did you find it helpful?


To Fast-Track or not to Fast-Track?


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photo credit:

I’d like to talk about a book I read recently, called Mothers on the Fast Track by Mary Anne Mason and her daughter, Eve Mason Ekman. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. When I read for fun, I want my book to be, well, fun. But I felt this was a book I should read, being a mother and a PhD student. The book is about the structural challenges that mothers who are career-driven encounter. It has some interesting statistical information about what happens to women who chose a career as one of four “fast-track” occupations: lawyer, doctor, business executive, and university professors. In all those professions, women receive a roughly equal education (i.e., the gender proportion of PhD graduates, law degree graduates, etc. is about 50-50), but there are only very few women at the top positions in each of these professions. Women, particularly mothers, either drop down from the “fast-track” to a “second tier” job (e.g., sessional instructor or adjunct professor in universities), or they completely drop out and either don’t work at all or work from home as a small business owner (or mommy bloggers).

Why is this happening? The authors give several reasons. One reason is that the fast track requires a lot of hours. They are talking about a 60-hour workweek as being the easiest and most laid-back option. Since a full time, 9 to 5 job is 40 hours a week, you can see how this extra amount of hours you have to put in would make people who also have to care for young children practically unable to compete. This doesn’t apply just for moms, of course, but it seems that moms still tend to do more of the housework and child-care-work when both parents in the family are working full time. Now, parenting is not a job, as beta dad aptly put it, but it does take time. Even if the kids, like ours, are in daycare full day (8 to 5, which is a pretty long day for adults, let alone toddlers), there is still a lot of work in the after hours and on weekends, and if you are doing that work then you are not doing work-work. So basically, if you are willing to not have any life at all outside of your work, you can be a “fast-tracker”.

An interesting piece of information from the book is that, while for women working more hours correlates with less children (on average), the relationship is reverse for men: the more hours a man works, the more children (on average) he has (this is not true for university professors, for some reason). The explanation, per Mason, is that men who work more hours have a higher income, and can financially support a larger family. This ties into my rant about equal pay: apparently the next feminist revolution ought to be happening at home.

The book is somewhat repetitive, but I hear non-fiction books tend to do that. It has to do with constructing an argument, apparently. However, my main problem with it (and this may be just me) is that it makes the “second tier” jobs sound like a failure. I had a strategy talk with my supervisor today (about time, no?), and she argues that if I can find a place that provides me with what I want, then it doesn’t really matter what that place is. So, a part-time teaching job that allows me to build in some research while being affiliated with a higher-education institution would not count, for me, as a “second tier” job or a compromise. It would be doing the smart move and making the system work for me.

What about you? How are you making the system work?

Left Neglected, Working Moms, and Harry Chapin

I’m a psychologist and I love the brain-mind connection, which is why I loved both of Lisa Genova’s books. The first, Still Alice, was about a middle aged, mid-career professor who suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s. It was funny and sad and touching, and really quite depressing. So when I saw that her recent book, Left Neglected, is about a working mom, I of course picked it up.

Left Neglected is about Sarah, a VP at a consulting company and mother of three who has a car accident that leaves her with a condition called left neglect: her brain doesn’t know that the left side exists. But really, the book is about a career woman who finds that her family matters to her more than her career (cue audience “awww” sound).

Lisa Genova has a pretty clear agenda on both her books. She is trying to remind us that family and loved ones are more important than jobs or careers. And don’t get me wrong: I don’t disagree. I think loved ones ARE more important than job and careers. I think it’s disturbing that those women had to go through traumatic brain damage to get to that revelation, but that’s another point.

The thing I disagree with Ms. Genova about is this assumption that if family is more important than a career then you ought to be a stay-at-home mom or at least work part time. What I find annoying is the implicit criticism that working moms put their careers before their families. This, by the way, is not necessarily directed at women. Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle (made famous for my generation by Ugly Kid Joe) is one example of the pressure directed at dads to spend more time with their kids. I think it is unfair, especially in the modern world, to hold a career against you even if you are a mom.

Now at this point, people will say, well, some moms have to go to work, and then it’s not their fault. And I would ask, well, what about the moms who don’t have to go to work? What about the moms for whom, from a financial point of view, there is no necessity in a second income? In my case, my income is inconsequential as compared with my husband (it doesn’t reflect a gender issue: he’s in high-tech and I’m a graduate student). Specifically, in my case, my income barely covers daycare for the two kids – and that’s just because it got governmental funding. So, am I not allowed to go back because we don’t have the financial need for it?

My husband and I talked about it when our first was about six months old, and we have decided that I would go back to work because otherwise I would go insane and throw the baby out the window. I admire stay-at-home moms, I have no idea how they do it. In this decision, two factors played a significant role. The first was that I wanted the career opportunity. I can’t be satisfied with just being a mom; I need to be a professional as well. Please do not interpret “just” as meaning “merely”, I’m not trying to start another mommy war. I wouldn’t have been happy had I stayed at home to care for my kids, despite my love for them. The second factor was the example I wanted to set for my kids. I want my son to think of women as independent and capable. I want my daughter to think of herself as a whole person, not a one-dimensional character as the media sometimes portrays us. In order for them to do that, they need to see their female role model as such. And, unfortunately for them, I’m that female role model. So here we are.

What do you think? Am I neglecting my children by going back to work? Or do you agree with me that sometimes we need more than our kids? Please share your story and the factors that you took into consideration when you decided to go back to work or stay at home. 

The Post That Would Get Me Kicked Out of The Cool Mommies Club

Not that I’m in that club. And judging by the whopping 15 followers on Twitter, I’m far from ever entering that club. But any chance I ever had will be gone as soon as I will have published this post. And it won’t be because I’m using the Future Perfect tense.

I’m going to criticize The Scary Mommy book (gasp). Well, not so much criticize, as have a less than perfectly positive and encouraging response. I’m pretty sure I will have to shut down my blog after that. And possibly move to Canada. Wait a minute.

Ok, so on with it. We took a week long, well deserved vacation a couple of weeks ago, and I had a chance to read the Confessions of a Scary Mommy book. My first thought: $14 for an e-book? REALLY?

Now, the book is, of course, funny, and sad, and touching, and all of those things that people say about it. I’ve been following the blog since I was home with my first baby, a couple of years ago. It helped me through a pretty rough time – it’s very lonely and isolating to be home alone with a new baby. So if you know someone who has a newborn or is just about to pop, this is really a perfect gift.

But now, as I’m going back to work after my second yearlong mat leave, I’ve had enough of the competition declared by mommy bloggers – the competition of who’s the worst mommy. I don’t argue for a second that parenthood is just positive, or that being a parent is easy. My firstborn is not even three years old and already I’m pretty wiped. Just thinking about teen years is making me cringe. But I wonder a few things: a) is this negativity healthy for mothers? B) Can’t I like my kids without being kicked out of the cool kids’ club? C) Why do we have a cool kids’ club? When did we go back to high school?

I think that complaining about motherhood openly and publicly had done wonders to moms who were lonely and isolated and feeling guilty because they dared thinking, man, this is really hard work. In health research, optimism is almost synonym with health, recovery, and well-being. And while research done in the 1980s found a relationship between parenthood and lower well being, research that was done in the new millennium (and, therefore, more sophisticated) showed that being a parent entails all sorts of perks such as better social integration (see the cook kids’ club above), and less depression symptoms as compared to childless adults (I’m not kidding). So it can’t be all bad, can it?

What do you think? Yes, you, the one person who reads my blog 🙂 I would love to hear your comments!