A survey of 178 mothers has found that those who take their children to Baby Signing classes are more stressed than those who don’t. Baby Signing involves using gestures in an attempt to communicate with pre-verbal or minimally lingual infants. The idea is hugely popular. Tiny Talk, a UK company, runs over 400 classes each week.
One claim of Baby Signing classes is that it is beneficial to children’s language development. The evidence for this is equivocal. Another claim is that by improving child-parent communication, the classes help relieve parental stress. It’s this latter claim that Neil Howlett and his colleagues have examined in their study of mothers recruited via signing classes, internet sites, toddler groups and community organisations in the south east of England. Eighty-nine mothers who attended Baby Signing classes with their infants were compared with 89 mothers who did not.
Howlett’s team used the 120-item self-report Parenting Stress Index (PSI) to measure the mothers’ stress levels. Although mothers who attended signing classes reported being more stressed than those who didn’t, the researchers didn’t obtain baseline stress measures (prior to class attendance) so they have no way of knowing if the classes caused the increased stress or if stressed mothers are simply more likely to attend the classes. No evidence was found that more months spent signing with one’s child was associated with even greater stress, so the idea that signing causes the stress looks unlikely.
Howlett’s team think the signing mothers were probably more stressed in the first place and that’s why they took their children to signing classes (a plausible suggestion given that the classes claim to help reduce stress). Consistent with this, the signing mothers recorded particularly high scores on the ‘child domain’ of the PSI, which indicates they were stressed about their child’s behaviour. Moreover, the finding chimes with past research showing that mothers who enrol their preschool children in academic focused activities also have heightened anxiety.
‘Gesture classes claim to reduce stress and create a better bond between child and mother,’ the researchers concluded. ‘Our results find no evidence for this and even suggest that the effect may be detrimental.’
Howlett, N., Kirk, E., and Pine, K. (2010). Does ‘Wanting the Best’ create more stress? The link between baby sign classes and maternal anxiety. Infant and Child Development DOI: 10.1002/icd.705
Link to Psychologist magazine article: ‘The great baby signing debate’.