Non-linguistic benefits of gestural communication

  • Pine, Karen (PI)
  • Fletcher, Ben (CoI)

Project: Research

Project Details

Key findings

Key Findings:
Every week thousands of parents in the UK are joining Baby Sign classes. The Baby Signs promise is that, by using gestural communication with infants as young as six months, babies will speak earlier, be more contented and even have greater intelligence. The aims of this research were to examine whether using gestures alters the mother’s perception of her infant, whether the quality of interaction is enhanced and the parent-child relationship more positive.

Communicating with gesture changes the way that mother and baby interact with one another. Our first study aimed to elucidate this process by measuring maternal mind-mindedness (a mothers’ willingness to treat her infant as an individual with a mind).

Videotaped observations of mother-infant dyads (who had taken part in a yearlong longitudinal RCT study of encouraged gesture) were coded for mind-mindedness. Mothers who were trained to use gestures with their infant (n = 9) demonstrated heightened levels of mind-mindedness compared to mothers in a control group (n = 9) displaying, for example, more maternal responsiveness to changes in their infant’s attention and encouraging more independent action by their infant. These findings suggest that mothers who gestured with an infant may have engaged in more joint attention and been more attuned to their infant’s intentions.

We went on to explore the benefits of these differences in social interaction and evaluated the claim that gesturing with babies reduces stress and frustration. We compared self-reported parental stress of mothers who attended baby sign classes (n = 89) and those who attended general activity classes with their baby (n = 89). Baby sign group mothers were significantly more stressed than non-baby sign group mothers. Both groups of mothers came from similar backgrounds and did not differ on demographic factors. The only difference was the types of groups that mothers attended. Baby sign groups teach infant gestures and advertise improvements for infant development and maternal confidence, whereas general activity classes are based around music and activities and advertise a more pro-social environment.

We do not infer causality from this study or suggest that baby sign elicits stress in parents. The maternal levels of stress were not related to how long mothers had been attending baby sign classes, i.e. increased attendance was not correlated with higher stress levels. However, the differences were surprising. We conclude that baby sign classes appeal to mothers with higher pre-existing stress levels, possibly because of the advertised claims (e.g. stress reduction, better relationship with your infant). Mothers who are experiencing anxiety in their role as parent may be more attracted to a class that claims to help with parenting; and more likely to choose baby sign.

Taken together our findings suggest that using gesture may be more suitable for infants who are at risk of language delay or developmental difficulties. Mothers who lack confidence in their ability to interact with their infant may also gain benefit from gestures because they facilitate more responsiveness.

Potential Use in a Non-academic Context:
The project has had a wide societal impact by informing health professionals and parents about the advantages and disadvantages of gesturing with an infant. Many parents involved in the project have taken a great interest in the results and used them to guide choices involving their infant. Overall the project has provided objective advice to parents and professionals that was not available before. Most of the information regarding signing was previously provided by commercial companies selling the product and was largely unfounded. One of the key contributions of this project was and is to provide an impartial view of the benefits, or otherwise, of signing.
Effective start/end date1/01/0931/03/10


  • UKRI - Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC): £81,631.00


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