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Church volunteer teaches sign language to babies

Nancy Jayne teaches sign language to her 15-month-old grandson, Cayden Young, and other children and their parents at Trinity United Methodist Church in Whitesboro, N.Y. UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By John Gordon*
May 13, 2008 | WHITESBORO, N.Y. (UMNS)

Toddlers learn sign language to improve their communication.

When Nancy Jayne happened across a book at the local library, she had no idea it would lead to a new way of understanding her grandson.

The book was about teaching sign language to babies.

"It just opened a world of communication between the two of us, and we have a great time signing," Jayne says.

Now, the former school teacher volunteers her time to teach signing to infants and their parents at Trinity United Methodist Church in Whitesboro.

"There’s less frustration than the 'cry and try' game. You know, the baby cries and you try to figure out what they want," she says. "With signing, they can tell you what they want––if they need help, if they want their milk. If they want more, they can let you know."

Teresa Jones was skeptical but signed up for the course on a whim.

"When I first heard about it, I thought, 'This is silly,"" recalls Jones. "I didn’t think it would work."

But Jones' 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, learned about 100 words in sign language before she could talk.

"I was so amazed how she learned the signs and I was able to communicate with her, she was able to communicate with me," Jones says. "It was one of the best decisions I made as a parent."

Jones is also teaching sign language to the newest addition to her family, 6-month-old Madeline.

"I’ve had different ages in my groups, from six months to two years," Jayne says. "And I have a new family with twins (who started at) six months old and they’ve been signing and they started to sign back at eight months. Each baby is different."

Opening new windows

The first signs that babies usually learn cover some of their basic needs and messages—eat, milk, more, all done.

"Communication is so important," Jayne says. "Years ago, we didn’t think little babies could sign back and communicate, but they can. It opens a window into their minds."

Teresa Jones says daughter Lucy has learned about 100 signs and infant
daughter Madeline is also learning.

Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Marilyn Baissa, says the ministry is unusual and also helps to attract prospective church members. Families whose babies are baptized at Trinity can take the course at no charge.

"We think (it) really benefits families because we try to be all about families and children," Baissa says.

Church member Jessica Collis has two children who took the signing course. Collis says signing helped ease some of the stresses of motherhood.

"It really did eliminate a lot of frustration and terrible twos and all that fun stuff where parents and kids aren’t understanding each other," she says. "We could talk before we could talk."

Multiple benefits

Jayne uses the American Sign Language signs that are the standard for adults.

"I’ve had a lot of phone calls from parents with deaf children. They say, 'What a lonely life,'" Jayne says. "So I’m hoping if these babies keep going and the parents keep going, at least they’ll have a few signs that they can sign with them."

Jayne says sign language also can be used to communicate with children who have Down syndrome or other developmental challenges.

Some studies suggest infants who learn sign language may do better in school or have higher IQs, though those benefits are still debated in academic circles.

As for parents taking Nancy Jayne’s classes, they are just happy to have another avenue of communication and understanding with their children.

"If they can look at me and I can know what they want, it’s kind of like there’s an understanding between us," says Heather Frank, who is enrolled with her 8-month-old twins. "And I think it’s a relief for all of us."

*Gordon is a freelance producer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Baby Sign Language

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