Baby steps in communication

A company's classes at two library branches teach toddlers and parents to use sign language


While instructor Brenda Rowland made a sign for a cat by stroking imaginary whiskers under her nose, 15-month-old Kayley Cooke toddled around the library room.

Kayley, attending a "sign language for babies" class at the West County branch of the Anne Arundel Public Library, didn't seem to be paying much attention, but her grandmother, Jane Cooke, said the lessons are sinking in.

"She's already learning a lot of neat things," said Cooke, who lives in Gambrills. "It's making sense to her, but it hasn't really translated to her hands yet."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Feb. 12 Anne Arundel edition mistakenly reported that the Baby Signs program for children is not based on American Sign Language. In fact, most of the signs come from American Sign Language. The others are modified either to allow babies with limited motor skills to model the signs, or so that babies can more easily relate the sign to the object or word. The article also mistakenly identified the name of someone who joined Baby Signs more than three years ago. The company representative is Norm Laughlin, an independent district manager. The Sun regrets the errors.

The Anne Arundel County library system is hosting Baby Signs classes at the Crofton and West County branches. Registration for the program, run by the Baby Signs company, is done through the county recreation and parks department.

The idea behind teaching a baby sign language is that children are able to communicate long before they can actually talk.

A baby who can communicate is less prone to frustration, and that means both babies and caregivers are happier.

The classes are generally for kids younger than 3, said Norm Laughlin, independent district manager for Baby Signs, but even older kids can benefit from learning signs.

Baby Signs uses its own signing system, not related to American Sign Language.

Cooke said her son and daughter-in-law, Dave and Erin, who live in Crofton, have been following the program at home. Kayley can now do the sign for food (patting her fingers to her lips) when she's hungry.

"It does reduce a little bit of frustration, and it's always good for them to learn new things," Cooke said. "Sometimes it's a challenge because they can't really express what they want."

The second six-week session, which will end this week, has attracted two families in Odenton and six in Crofton, Laughlin said. Baby Signs also offers workshops and classes at community centers, he said.

Cooke joined Baby Signs three years ago. He said that sign language instruction for babies became popular after the Baby Signs founders, Dr. Linda Acredolo and Dr. Susan Goodwyn, published their first book on the subject, Baby Signs, in 2002.

Since then, the authors have published Baby Minds, about intellectual development; and Baby Hearts, about emotions. Laughlin said the Baby Signs classes incorporate intellectual and emotional development, unlike other baby sign language programs. "The class is designed around those three books," he said.

Rowland had to take six weeks of classes to become a certified instructor. Each class meets once a week for four hours, she said.

Rowland said she became interested in the program because her son, who is 6 years old, has partial hearing loss.

"I started this program when he was little," she said.

During the class, she used songs and games to teach children the signs. One song for example, was sung to the tune of "Old MacDonald" while the parents showed the signs for different animals.

Cindy Patterson, attending the class with her 10 1/2 -month-old, Aidan, said she joined because she'd read about sign language for babies. "He hasn't actually physically done the sign," she said, but she knows that he recognizes signs.

The Pattersons have dogs, and sometimes Aidan will get into the food and water bowls, said Cindy Patterson. Now that she knows baby signs, she gets his attention by saying his name, then does the sign for "no," pressing her index and middle finger into her thumb.

"I can redirect with the sign, and he'll go and play somewhere else," she said.

During the hour-long session Wednesday at the West County library branch, Aidan's interest in dogs seemed to manifest itself by his desire to chew on a large card with a cartoon picture of a dog on it. Every now and then, he took it out of his mouth, looked at it and smiled.

Patterson said one reason she had joined the class is that she wanted Aidan to become comfortable around other children. It seems to have worked, she said.

Rowland, meanwhile, was teaching the sign for "baby," the action of holding the opposite arm's elbows and swinging, as though rocking a baby.

This will be a useful sign for Aidan, as Patterson is expecting her second child in July. She hopes to start teaching her second child sign language as soon as possible, she said.

"I think a lot of what I'm learning now will help with the second one," she said.

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