Infant Signs as Intervention

Toddlers’ face a developmental shift in which their abilities to clearly communicate feelings and needs lag behind their rapidly developing intention and autonomy. This gap results in a period of greater frustration for both parents and preverbal children, often labeled “the terrible twos.” In this period, vulnerable parent-child relationships can become coercive, disrupting healthy social development.

Both the socio-affective and linguistic aspects of early parent-child interaction form the home language environment, which strongly influences children’s early language skills, which in turn influence their social-cognitive and school-readiness skills. Thus, toddlers need adequate language skills to support their own social-cognitive skills, and parents need tools for effective communication with preverbal children to support positive interactions. Existing interventions to promote parent-child communication take a unidirectional approach, teaching parents to more accurately read child cues, but do not promote clarification of child cues nor help to make children active partners in communication.

Gestures (e.g. pointing) provide a means of preverbal communication and promote interaction and language skills. Symbolic gestures (a.k.a. infant signs; e.g., tapping fingers to mouth for ‘eat’, running finger down cheek for ‘sad’) expand and clarify preverbal communication. Children can even use signs for feelings, emotions, and time-concepts (Vallotton, 2008). Use of symbolic gestures has been shown to advance child language in a middle-income sample; and parents consistently claim that infant signing reduces frustration and promotes child social skills. However, developmental science has yet to explore the potential of infant signing to influence the parent-child relationship or child development in domains besides language; further, this practice has not been tested in populations other than typically developing, middle-class, monolingual children.

We are currently seeking funding for this study in order to determine whether using Infant Signs as an intervention within an existing early intervention for low-income families will…

  1. Increase positive parent-child relationship qualities, for example reducing parenting-related stress, changing parents’ perceptions of their children, increasing parents’ attunement to and responses to children’s needs.
  2. Promote children’s social-emotional skills, particularly early Theory of Mind and emotion regulation.

A previous study on the use of infant signs as a communication tool for infants and non-parental caregivers showed that infant signs help to increase caregivers’ responsiveness to infants. In moment-to-moment interactions, infants’ use of gestures and signs in response to caregivers increased caregivers’ overall responsiveness to the children (Vallotton, 2009).

Results from a pilot study using a simple Infant Sign Intervention (ISI) with infants/toddlers and parents in low-income families showed that ISI families used more symbolic gestures than control families. Children in the ISI used more social cues and more words during parent-child interaction. Mothers’ were more attuned to child affect and more responsive to children’s distress cues. Mothers in the intervention group also viewed their children more positively. This study provided evidence that a simple infant sign intervention is an effective tool to promote bidirectional communication and positive interactions for preverbal children and their parents

In partnership with Michigan State University Extension Parent Educators, we are currently pilot testing a new Infant Sign Intervention for Home Visiting. The goal of the intervention is to teach parents of preverbal children to use infant signs with their infants and toddlers, and to support their use of signs. The goal of the pilot is to determine if the new curriculum, delivered primarily through home visiting services, is effective in teaching and supporting parents’ use of signs for families who are already enrolled in early intervention services.

Related Publications and Presentations

Here is a link to a white paper summarizing the research on the effects of using signs with infants and children


Peer Reviewed Publications

Vallotton, C.D. (in press). Infant signs as intervention? Promoting symbolic gestures for preverbal children in low-income families supports responsive parent-child relationships. Early Childhood Research Quarterly

Vallotton, C.D. (2011). Babies open our minds to their minds: How “listening” to infant signs complements and extends our knowledge of infants and their development. Accepted for publication in the Infant Mental Health Journal,32, 1-20. doi: 10.1002/imhj.20286

Vallotton, C. D. (2009). Do infants influence their quality of care? Infants’ communicative gestures predict caregivers’ responsiveness. Infant Behavior and Development, 32, 351-365.
doi: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2009.06.001

Vallotton, C. D. (2008). Signs of emotion: What can preverbal children “say” about internal states? Infant Mental Health Journal, 29, 234-258. DOI: 10.1002/imhj.20175

Posters and Presentations

Vallotton, C. D. (July, 2009). Is Three Modes Too Many? The Effects of an Infant Sign Intervention on the Communicative Behaviors of Children in Monolingual and Bilingual Families. In K. Pine (Chair), Evaluating the impact of Baby Sign on the linguistic, social and cognitive development of infants in the UK, USA and Germany. MultiMod 2009: Multimodality of communication in children: gestures, emotions, language, and cognition. Toulouse, France, July 9-11, 2009.

Farkas, C. & Vallotton, C. D. (August, 2008). The Baby Signs Program: Applications in child care settings across cultures. The 11th Congress of the World Association of Infant Mental Health, Yokohama, Japan.

Vallotton, C. D. (August, 2008). Overcoming the Terrible Two’s: Babies change their caregivers’ minds and behaviors by using symbolic gestures to communicate. In C. Vallotton (Chair), Babies signing around the world: Four studies of the effects of infant sign language as a parent-child intervention. The 11th Congress of the World Association of Infant Mental Health, Yokohama, Japan.

(June, 2008). Helping Caregivers Attune to Individual Infants: Infants’ and Caregivers’ Use of Infant Sign Language Enhances Caregiver Responsiveness. Head Start’s Ninth National Research Conference, Washington, D.C.

Vallotton, C. D. (March, 2008). Child Effects on Caregiver Responsiveness: Infants’ Use of Gestures to Respond TO Caregivers Elicits Responsiveness FROM Caregivers. The 16th International Conference on Infant Studies, Vancouver, Canada.

Vallotton, C. D. (July, 2006). Listening To Preverbal Children: Symbolic gestures as an intervention to enhance the caregiver-child relationship. The 10th Congress of the World Association for Infant Mental Health, Paris, France.

Vallotton, C. D. (November, 2005). Can we change maternal representations and responsiveness to children?: With the Baby Signs Program, children show us how. The Annual Zero To Three National Training Institute, Washington, D.C.