Baby talk – that high-pitched, sing-song way we tend to speak to babies. It feels automatic, almost instinctual. Research shows that adults around the world do it. People who lack experience with babies do it. Even preschoolers use baby talk with younger children.
Despite the fact that baby talk is a nearly universal phenomenon, some argue that parents and caregivers shouldn’t use it. So what’s the answer? Is baby talk good for language development, or is it better to speak to babies the way we would with other adults?
Based on research, the consensus is that YES, baby talk is good for language development! Even if it makes everyone around us cringe when we do it in the supermarket line.
Let’s explore what baby talk is, and what the research says about how it supports language learning.
What is baby talk?
Baby talk, also known as motherese, parentese, infant-directed speech, and child-directed speech, is a way of speaking to babies that includes:
- High-pitched voice
- Heightened emotion
- Repetition of words or phrases
- Slowed speech
- Drawn-out vowels
- Exaggerated facial expressions
How does baby talk support language development?
Baby talk supports language learning in a few key ways:
Baby talk captures a baby’s attention.
Focusing on a parent or caregiver’s speech, gestures, and facial expressions is foundational for language development. But babies need help doing that. They haven’t yet learned how to determine what’s important to pay attention to and what’s not, so they pay attention to everything. When you use baby talk, it helps them filter out other sights and sounds and focus on you.
Here’s another way to think about it: Imagine you’re listening to a speaker. If they speak vibrantly, you’re more likely to pay attention. If they don’t, you probably start looking around at other things, and your mind wanders. Baby talk accomplishes the same thing as an enthusiastic speaker. It says to your baby: “Look at and listen to me.”
Baby talk motivates a baby to interact.
Also foundational to language development is adult-child interaction. Studies show that babies prefer interacting with people who use baby talk. Because they enjoy it, they’re motivated to coo, smile, babble, laugh, gesture, or speak to keep the interaction going.
Aside from supporting communication, interactions around baby talk also nurture emotional connection. It’s important to note that mothers with postpartum depression use less baby talk with their infants which, in turn, can interfere with attachment.
Baby talk also helps babies:
- Discriminate between different speech sounds
- Recognize where words begin and end within a stream of speech
- Learn how to “read lips” by watching an adult’s exaggerated mouth movements
- Learn word meanings
When should baby talk stop?
Just as using baby talk feels natural, knowing when to stop using it will feel natural, too. As your baby’s language matures, the way you talk to him will adapt.
So, rest assured that baby talk is not only okay, but a powerful way to connect with your little one and help him learn.