Monday, 18 October 2010

Mothers who attend baby signing classes are more stressed

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.'

ResearchBlogging.orgHowlett, 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

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to Psychologist magazine article: 'The great baby signing debate'.


Anonymous said...

My personal experience strongly contradicts this. I wonder if there is an element of "wanting the best to the point of unrealistic perfection" in there somewhere.
It relieved my stress immensely by being able to communicate with my child.

lisa ansell said...

I used to attend baby signing/massage classes- when I was lonely and needed adult company. Generally, no sane adult really wants to go to a baby massage or signing class. Having a baby in a society where the norm is that you are on your own with that baby is a bit rubbish. People use groups.

Anonymous said...

Talk about a misleading headline...

Unknown said...

Anonymous at 12.45 - why is the headline misleading?

Unknown said...

I disagree that you have to be insane (or be more likely to be stressed) to attend these groups! It could be possible that those who feel they need more social support and an easy way to entertain their babies are more likely to attend, but having attended a weekly signing class for almost a year and having met lots of parents doing the same, I wouldn't say that parents do it for achievement reasons.

The study fails to acknowledge that simply attending signing classes does not mean a child learns or uses sign language (and therefore potentially experience the benefits claimed by providers). It is entirely down to the parent(s)/caregiver using signs with the child in everyday life, not in a one hour class once a week. Not all the parents have done this and have attended for other reasons.

I have used certain signs a lot and it helped us communicate on essentials like hunger, thirst and comfort, as well as fun things, long before she could speak, so surely helped to minimise frustrations between us. My toddler signs a lot and it may have delayed her use of speech compared to her peers but I can see no way that this can have negatively affected the 'maternal bond'. Quite the contrary!

Maybe parents attending groups in the South East are not representative of the whole country?

keith said...

This is a great post giving a lot to think about concerning the psychology of it all. I don't think signing should be allowed to be a replacement but an additional skill set.

Shanie Nash said...

My baby and I attended Tiny Talk and thorougly enjoyed it. I was equiped with a large vocabulary of signs, which has enabled us to communicate specific words and understand each other. Before my son could talk he could sign over 100 words, which has reduced his frustration and therefore reduced my stress levels which would have been raised if I couldn't understand him!
It was a great way to spend quality time together away from home, I met other mums and enjoyed everything about it. I would highly recommend this fabulous activity as thoroughly worthwhile and stress free!!!

Dawn Holt said...

I teach TinyTalk baby sign language classes in Derby and don't recognise what the article is describing at all. On a sample of 57 families, 72% of parents & carers at my TinyTalk classes last term said that the classes had improved their confidence as a parent/carer! 96% said they found the classes very friendly and supportive. Doesn't chime with the article, does it?
It is VERY stressful being the parent of a new baby or toddler and anything that cheers you up and gives you some extra skills and coping strategies has got to be good. As the article admits, it clearly wasn't the signing or class attendance which was making the parents stressed. Best not to forget that!

mich said...

Reading the linked article does rather suggest that baby-sign language class does nothing to improve early verbal skill acquisition. The present article goes on to say it does not alleviate stress levels. That does not mean, @Dawn Holt, that the self-reported percentages disagree with the evidence: "I (a teacher of TinyTalk) think", "people who just took my classes say I was of help to them", are percentages you'd get from watching some miracle healer's mass performance. Finally, I wouldn't be surprised if 96% of people who shop at (Supermarket X) find the staff there friendly and supportive. So what?

Baby Signing Mummy said...

I think it is very important not to get carried away with the 'wild' claims that some signing companies make. I teach baby signing and I run Baby Signing Mummy ( and I am finding that there are many reasons why parents decide to take part in a course. I am always open and honest and tell parents that baby signing is not a magic answer and it does take time and patience to teach the baby to sign. I do believe it is a great way for parents to meet other parents and mix and socialise but never claim that by using the sign language their child will have enhanced language skills. The research that Howlett and co are carrying out has led to some very interesting findings. As a paediatric nurse by background, I feel that if nothing else baby sign language and the classes I teach, encourage parents to chat, and interact with their baby and if this does help to relieve the stress of having a new born then I am in great support of that.

Leigh Blows said...

It's also important no to get carried away with the 'results of research', especially when data is not presented in full, and numerical data not at all (although you can read the full article for 24-hours for a fee of $39.15). And let's not forget, a sample of 178 is microscopicl in research terms.

Personally, I wouldn't take notice of this news item. My own experiences of baby signing (although not experienced as part of a formal group) were hugely rewarding for me, and my three children in turn. A great stress reducer.

If anyone is concerned about the results of this research, ask your friends, health visitor, other mums on Twitter or parenting forums; that way you'll get a real view of the real world.

Libby Hill said...

I agree with Baby Signing Mummy. Iam a speech & language therapist who also runs signing sessions as part of language and communication classes. I have successfully used signing with children with special needs and those developing normally for almost 30 years. Unfortunately, there is no regulatory body for baby sign and anyone can set up (I get weekly e-mails suggesting I train with some course or other). Used properly, there is no question that sign helps a baby's understanding and expressive skills. Its time for regulation so those of us who do it correctly aren't penalised by those who don't!

Anonymous said...

well, in my experience, baby signing has been very rewarding. My daughter knew 120 signs before she could talk. She's now 2 and a half and I regularly get comments from professionals (nursery managers, health visitors etc.) that her speech is very advanced for her age. I cannot prove that baby signing was the cause, but it definitely has not hindered her! And the bonus of being able to communicate with her before she could talk was amazing.

It is down to the parents to sign at home - no child is going to pick up signs from just 1 class a week, just as no adult would be able to either. It takes time and practice at home.

As already mentioned, many parents attend these classes for various reasons. There's a lot of holes in this article, so I don't think anyone should pay much attention to it.

Caroline Stalker said...

I have signed with both my two girls (now 3 and 17m) and found both the signing, and baby signing (TinyTalk) classes ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC in many ways, and this article seems to be both unhelpful and misleading. Both my children were able to express themselves long before they were able to speak (as an example my younger daughter could do 60 signs by her 1st birthday, and about 130 now at 17m...along with about 70 or so words, and my older daughter now has an exceptional vocabulary).

As a result of their ability to communicate with us, we had far less stress and frustration as a family, and a wonderful bond as my husband and I knew that they understood and to then be able to talk to them in a more intelligent and fun way from a much younger age.

I would also say that without a doubt the signing has helped both of their communication and language skills, being particularly useful in the transition period from signing to speaking when there can be lots of frustration from children who are making early word sounds, but parents can't understand them...whereas my daughter says 'fffff', signs flower and I know what she's saying and able to support the development of the word by saying it back to her - and in the meantime making her happy because I understand!

Also, I personally found the classes a truly wonderful part of my week, with a lovely mixture of signing, signing, use of puppets etc and also a social time to chat and make friends...more stressed?! - hardly! One of the girls in the class recently left to return to work and cried through much of her last class as she said 'maternity leave just wouldn't have been the same without TinyTalk!'.

It seems to me that this research is fundamentally flawed, in the same way as the MMR/Autism research was and similarly, if it shows anything, demonstrates only correlation rather than causation.

Perhaps the demographic who care enough about their children to want, and have the means to, spend quality time with them and support their development at these kinds of classes (particularly in the South East) I suspect tend toward being more stressed anyway. I'm sure that the same would apply if the researchers had looked at the link between taking these same children to music group or baby gym type classes.

I always recommend Baby Signing, and specifically TinyTalk as an absolutely wonderful experience to all parents I know and no parent reading this should be put off in anyway - go and see a class and then make your own mind up!!

Patty said...

Is it possible that these moms have too high expectation from their babies and eventually this comes the stressful thing. This is my 2 cents.

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