The phrase “baby talk” might make you think of nonsense sounds like “goo goo” and “gaa gaa,” but in reality it’s much more than that. Often called “parentese” or “infant directed speech,” baby talk is characterized by the use of a higher-pitched voice, extended vowel sounds, and a slower-than-normal tempo that engages the infant in back-and-forth interactions. This type of communication actually plays an important role in language development during the first two years of an infant’s life.
Baby talk involves many variables, including:
- Sound cues. Babies often demonstrate more attentive listening in response to certain cues. A mother’s voice is one such cue; this connection may be a result of memories formed in utero after the auditory system develops. Another cue is higher octave and slower tempo speech.
- Facial expressions. Sometimes called “parent-look,” facial expressions give infants the communicative context of the words they are hearing.
- Gestures. This refers to simply motions such as when a parent or caregiver points at an object to direct a baby’s attention to the topic of conversation.
Used together, these provide a context for language development.
Benefits of baby talk
Researchers have found that children whose parents engage in baby talk with them during one-on-one interaction demonstrate more language skills in toddlerhood. One study found that infants whose parents engaged them in baby talk during one-on-one interactions used 433 words at 2 years of age, compared with just 169 words for infants whose parents used standard speech in a group setting.
How do you practice baby talk?
It’s important to note that the “baby talk” referenced here is characterized by its tone and not by its content. In other words, it is the sing-song quality that defines the practice, not the mispronunciation of words that mimic an infant’s first attempts at language. “Let’s eat bwweakfast and then wead a book,” is a mispronunciation and is not at all helpful to language development. The same message can be delivered in an infant-centered manner with correct pronunciation, a slower pace, and perhaps gesturing to the bookshelf.
The Center for Early Literacy Learning (CELL) recommends these steps for practicing baby talk:
- Your child should be in a comfortable position where you can easily look at each other.
- Start by saying anything that captures your infant’s attention. For example: “How is [baby’s name] today?,” or if it’s mealtime, “It’s time for [baby’s name] to eat. Are you hungry?” It’s best to use words that describe what you and your baby are currently doing together.
- Follow your baby’s lead. Watch for signs or signals that show your baby hears you or is paying attention to your voice, such as a “bright-eyed” expression or moving excitedly.
- Speak softly and slowly, then speak in a manner that exaggerates the sounds in words. For example, “[Baby’s name] is soooo cuuute.”
- Alternate between your regular adult speech and baby talk as you chat. Your baby will be more engaged and possibly try “talking” to you.
Remember, your baby doesn’t need to understand what you’re saying. The goal is to involve and engage her in the conversation. And if baby talk doesn’t come naturally, simply try slowing down your speech and speaking with your baby one-on-one as often as possible.
Moving beyond baby talk
As your child’s language development progresses, infant-directed talk becomes less important. When their skills have developed to the point where they can pick out new words in the middle or end of a sentence—usually around 18 months of age—children will be less dependent on the context clues that baby talk provides.
While that sing-song voice will no longer be needed, one-on-one interactions remain equally as important beyond the baby talk phase. As your child grows, you can continue to support the development of strong language processing skills by:
- Having more parent-child conversations (one-on-one)
- Using different words for the same item
- Using different types of words
- Speaking in longer phrases
- Parents and also older siblings allowing space for the child to respond
So read a book about colors or animals, talk about shapes or the weather, or walk your child through the steps you’re taking as you fold a load of laundry. It might seem boring or nonsensical to you, but this engaged time with your infant through toddlerhood will leave a lasting impact on her language development.