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Infant Ment Health J. 2011 Jan;32(1):115-133. doi: 10.1002/imhj.20286.

Babies open our minds to their minds: How "listening" to infant signs complements and extends our knowledge of infants and their development.

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Michigan State University.


Preverbal children are capable of explicitly communicating their own desires, emotions, and thoughts through infant signs (i.e., symbolic gestures) that they have invented or learned from caregivers. In this article, I describe seven lines of child development research and show how attending to infants' use of signs can complement and extend this knowledge of development for both scientists and caregivers. The areas of developmental research include object permanence, categorization, shared meaning, mental state understanding and absent reference, emotion knowledge, identity, and self-regulation. I present qualitative data on infants' signing gathered through videos of caregiver-child interaction, student caregivers' systematic participant observations, my own observations in an infant classroom, and volunteered sign stories from parents who use signs with their infants. I also present quotes from interviews with parents and caregivers of signing children to show how infants' signing affects adults' perceptions of and feelings toward children. With infant signs, infants reveal their thoughts, feelings, interests, and personalities in their own contexts through everyday interactions. By "listening" to infant signs, parents, practitioners, and scientists gain insight into individual infants and respect for the often underestimated capacities of preverbal children.


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