Goo-goo, ga ga. Who is the cutest baby? Is it you?
When a baby is around, grown-ups will often morph into big babies themselves, making silly faces, using inflection in their voices to babble away. While we may look a bit strange doing it, a new study suggests that when parents baby talk to their infants, they might be helping them learn to produce speech.
We’ve consulted with the experts to find out the origins of baby talk and why it is beneficial for babies.
Why do we do baby talk in the first place?
Dr. Arthur Lavin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, says that naturally, babies are more connected to their mom from birth.
“Traditionally speaking, in the common mother-father arrangement, almost all mothers have a higher-pitched voice than almost all fathers,” Lavin says. “The baby brain seeks that higher-pitched voice. And somewhere along the way, we caught on to that, and try to emulate that voice by taking ours up a couple of notches when a baby is around.”
Additionally, Lavin says that all life forms know if someone is being nice to them. So, in addition to a high-pitched voice, there is a tone of love, which is maximized by baby talk.
“This is where the vocabulary gets a little goofy and the words don’t matter,” says Lavin. “You are just gushing love. You may even hum or sing. This is all a way to connect with a baby. This initial connection to a mother’s voice launches this connection.”
How is baby talk beneficial?
According to Dr. Harvey Karp, nationally renowned pediatrician and child development specialist, when parents use up and down and more emotional tone with gestures, they’re speaking directly to a baby’s emotional right brain.
The right brain is the non-verbal language side of the brain that matures much faster than the left side of the brain and is considered more “adult” and the center for patience, cooperation, analytical ability — otherwise commonly known as executive functioning.
“This kind of glittery conversational style helps babies tune in and learn, in part, because it’s a tiny two-way dialogue,” says Karp, who notes that when parents say a few phrases in a sing-songy way, babies often respond by cooing, smiling or shrieking. “All of this back-and-forth teaches your little one how communication works. It also shows them that we show our love and respect for someone by paying attention and taking turns.”
Linda Polka, Ph.D., of McGill University, co-author of the University of Florida Study on Baby Talk, says that though baby talk may sound simple, it’s accomplishing a lot.
“We’re trying to engage with the infant to show them something about speech production,” she says. “We’re priming them to process their own voice.”
Additionally, the study suggests that the patterns associated with baby talk — which scientists call “infant-directed speech” — could be a key component in helping babies make words.
When should baby talk end?
Baby talk is helpful when a child has no idea what any words mean. However, Lavin says that when babies move towards full blown language at around 15 months of age, the meaning of the baby talk drops and makes way for a connection of the love and emotions built around the use of language.
While the experts agree that there’s no “right time” to stop using baby talk with your child, Karp says it is important to adapt your kid-speak as they age, and especially when emotions are running high.
For example, he notes that toddler brains are still immature, which is why they often get upset, become impulsive and primitive when frustrated.
“When speaking with a child who’s having emotions — happy or sad — it’s important to translate using this natural brain preference with what’s called Toddler-ese,” says Karp.
Karp notes that parents can translate anything into Toddler-ese by simply using three little steps:
- Use short phrases
- Repeat yourself
- Mirror about one-third of your tot’s feelings.
“And, honestly, Toddler-ese is not just for toddlers! It also works with older kids — even adults — because when anyone gets really upset their eloquent left brain shuts down and their impulsive, impatient right brain takes over.”
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