Published with Permission
Written by Marsha Peterson

Babies enter this world with great curiosity and a willingness to learn. The first three years of life, and some may say the first eight years of life, will be the most important learning time for your baby. During this time baby pathway connections in his brain are being developed as he makes sense of things in his world. Reading to your baby and teaching him sign language are two ways to boost your baby’s language development.

In a July 2006 issue of WebMD, Jennifer Warner states that it is never too early to read to your children. Researchers from the study found children in low-income families had better language comprehension and cognitive development if their mothers read to them at an early age.1 is a website dedicated to helping families with reading. In their experience, “Children who have had books in their lives between birth and five will become the future highest achievers with a lifelong love of learning.”2

Even before a baby is born, he can hear the sound of how language works. Reading to baby before he is born will help him start to understand his native language. Babies can become familiar with the rhythm of sentences, how the voice is lowered at the close of a sentence or how the voice’s tone rises when a question is asked.

Reading is the most natural way to teach your baby. Books are easy to get and are a great way to introduce learning. suggests books do more than entertain. Books teach babies about communication. Books can introduce concepts. Baby can learn about numbers, letters, shapes, and colors. Books can help baby learn how to listen, build memory skills, introduce new words, and provide additional information about the world he lives in. How a book is read can give baby information about emotions as the reader uses expressive sounds. Baby can learn about socialization, which helps with emotional health.3

Babies like books with bright colors and contrasting patterns. As baby matures, she will show more interest in books by grabbing and trying to turn pages. Baby will even demonstrate her preferences about which book or story she prefers.

To gain the most when reading to your baby, suggests doing so in a quiet place, holding and comforting your baby, and starting on any page.4 Read with expression, and stop once in a while to ask a question. Books that are repetitive in nature will help baby learn, and it’s good to read the same stories several times. Try singing the words for added interest. And be sure to cuddle! Being close to baby while you are reading makes your baby feel safe and connected to you. And remember, baby loves the sound of your voice.

Andrew Meltzoff is co-director at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. The Institute conducts research about how newborns learn and develop. The April 2010 edition of Scholastic Parent and Child quotes Meltzoff: “Babies seem to learn language best from people. Parents and caretakers instinctively adjust their speech, eye gaze, and social signals to support language acquisition.”5 The article explains how language is the way to develop higher verbal IQs for babies but cautions it must be carried out via two-way communication.

There is much controversy about babies and toddlers who watch TV, DVDs, or tapes for learning. Studies from the University of Washington found that “8 to 16 month old infants who regularly watched TV actually understood fewer words than babies who did not watch TV at all.”6 Roberta M. Bolinkoff, in her book titled How Babies Talk, suggests TV watching may help with naming objects, but it does nothing to facilitate developing a language. It is only through interactive, conversational, turn-taking that children develop a thorough understanding of language.7 The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) “recommends that children under two years of age should not watch any TV, and those older than two should watch no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming. The first two years of life are considered a critical time for brain development. TV and other electronic media can get in the way of exploring, playing, and interacting with parents and others.”8

Before birth, baby has been listening to sounds while mother is still carrying him, even though it might sound like voices under water. Babies do in fact learn in the womb, and what they learn helps them after they are born. Research shows babies prefer to hear a higher pitched voice because of the familiarity they already have with their mother’s voice.9

Learning how to speak begins during infancy, when baby’s tongue comes in and out of the mouth. It’s this exercising and experimenting with the muscles used for speech that gets baby ready to talk. You may also notice some cooing, perhaps at different volumes. It takes time for baby to learn to coordinate all these parts, which is a reason why speech seems to take so long to emerge. While baby is developing these skills, he is also busy watching human faces (which he loves), hearing talking, and observing the world around him.

Before the body parts for speech are fully developed, believe it or not, your baby is ready to sign! The reason is because the part of the brain used for speech is developing slower than the part of the brain baby uses to learn sign language. A baby’s hand muscles are developed earlier than the muscles used for speech.10 You can introduce simple signs from birth to help you become familiar with them and comfortable using them. You may even incorporate sign language with reading. When your baby is ready to produce the first sign, as early as 6–8 months, you will be ready to know and teach the signs you want your baby to learn. Too many parents wait to gain the knowledge themselves until they feel their baby can sign, but these bases should be covered earlier.

Many babies will develop their own signs for communicating if no one teaches them proper signs. In fact, it’s never too late to teach your child how to sign and reap the many benefits. The use of sign language can reduce frustration and even raise a child’s IQ. Consider the study by John D. Bonvillian and Keith E. Nelson, titled “Sign Language Acquisition in a Mute Autistic Boy.”11 The study begins with an initial assessment of 9-year-old Ted, a boy with autism who does not speak. Children with autism generally do not like changes in their routine, are poor communicators, can become frustrated if misunderstood, do not socialize very well, and have behavior problems, to name a few common traits. I think most families can identify with one or more of these problems even if they do not have a child with special needs.

When Ted was 2 he displayed “emotional disturbances.” A hearing test was done to rule out hearing loss as a reason for these problems, but Ted’s hearing was within normal ranges. Starting at age 3, his parents tried several programs to improve his communication, including computers, group play therapy, and the use of incentives to encourage speech and to motivate paying attention to teacher and parent. When Ted was 9, the teacher noted that his receptive skills had improved somewhat since he had started pointing to objects, although he was still uncommunicative and his social interactions were inappropriate. The teacher decided to try sign language. Signing is easily taught since it is a visual form of communication, and Ted’s hands could be molded to make the signs.

The teacher, family, and other staff members would help “mold” Ted’s hands to make the sign for an object as they verbalized the word in English. It was important to involve the family so that Ted could “generalize” his American Sign Language (ASL) beyond the confines of the learning center.

During the next six months, Ted developed a functional language. Ted learned to sign when he needed to use the bathroom, tantrums were reduced, overall body movements were calmed, and his social interactions improved. Sign language proved to be the only way Ted could communicate, and the use of sign language improved his life dramatically. Signing can work for you too.

Early intervention starts when your baby comes home from the hospital. Start reading! Your baby won’t even care if you read a recipe book—just read. If you are unfamiliar with American Sign Language, now is the time to learn it, or if you already know ASL, now is the time to brush up on your skills. Be ready to teach.

Keep signs consistent and relevant to daily activities, like eating and bathing, starting with “eat,” “bath,”and “more,” for example. “Model” the sign repeatedly for baby. You may even mold the sign with baby’s hand as you verbalize the word. Always say the word as you are making the sign. The next step is to put two signs together, such as “more eat” and “more bath.” Once your baby catches on that use of a sign produces a certain effect, you are on your way to expanding vocabulary related to those effects. Try using those signs in different settings and in a different context. You will find you have a much happier (and smarter!) baby.

A report completed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care explains how high-quality care that includes stimulating language is important to our children and our future.12  Early education is something parents can be in charge of and something that should begin with baby’s arrival. It’s as easy as reading to baby and introducing sign language. Make the most of your baby’s first years: read and sign.


1. Warner, Jennifer. “Reading to Infants Raises Language Skills,” July 13, 2006,,2933,203393,00.html, accessed October 5, 2010.

2., accessed October 6, 2010.

3. “Finding the Right Read,” KidsHealth,, accessed October 5, 2010.

4. “Read-Aloud Tips: Eight Baby Read-Aloud Basics,” Read to Your Baby,, accessed October 5, 2010.

5. Buchanan, Carolyn. “Shortcut to Genius?” Scholastic Parent and Child, April 2010: 64. Print,, accessed October 19, 2010. Further information about the Institute and their mission can be found at this location:

6. Ibid.

7. Golinkoff, Roberta M. and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life, New York: Dutton, 1999. Print.

8. “Children’s TV Time Linked to Behavior Problems and Health Risks,” Family Resource Connection, Vol. XIII, Issue 1,, accessed October 6, 2010.

9. Golinkoff, Roberta M. and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life, New York: Dutton, 1999. Print.

10. “Sign Language for Babies,”, accessed October 6, 2010.

11. Bonvillian, John D. and Keith E. Nelson, “Sign Language Acquisition in a Mute Autistic Boy,” Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders 41, 3, 339–47, August 1976.

12. Todd, Christine, “The NICHD Child Care Study Results: What do they mean for parents, child-care professionals, employers and decision makers?” National Network for Child Care,, accessed October 6, 2010.


Marsha Peterson and her son Chad live in the Twin Cities. Chad was born with Down syndrome and autism and learned American Sign Language when he was 1. Marsha published a book to help parents learn American Sign Language at the same time they introduce literacy to their baby. Come Sign with Us: The Adventures of Potts and Friends was published in June 2009 and received a Mom’s Choice Award for Educational Products in February 2010. For more information, visit

Copyright, 2012. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, April 2012. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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