Baby Talk Isn’t Good for Your Baby (or for Anyone)
That adorable little pudgster might be slowly lisping her first babble, but her brain is moving faster than a photon on cocaine: Every word you say is being absorbed and processed, and will form the foundation of her vocabulary. So, ditch the meaningless baby talk – “goo-goo gah-gah”” might be fun for you (is it, though?), but it actually works against babies’ language development.
Fast facts about baby talk
- Babies start to understand language as early as six months – even if they can’t respond.
- Baby talk that uses gibberish or swaps real words for so-called ‘baby words’ – like, “Who’s my sweet, wittle baby-waby?” – actually hinders language development. And it sounds ridiculous.
- If your baby inspires cutesy talk, use ‘parentese’ – talking slowly with high, exaggerated pitch, shorter sentences, simpler (but proper) grammar, and elongated vowels: “Whoooo’s a happy baby?” — which helps to teach a baby to talk.
Babies have an innate ability to learn language, which begins before birth and accelerates rapidly after birth. As early as six months, babies can understand a lot more words than we think – even if they can’t respond. And by the time they are 2, children are learning new words at a language development. By age 4, language development that can have a lifelong impact.
These gaps aren’t unique or individual – they are the direct result of how many words a baby is exposed to in the first three years of life. Which is why baby talk is so useless and harmful – it doesn’t actually expose kids to the words they need to in order to start talking and learning.
As one expert puts it in a 2012 language development:
“Kids at this age aren’t saying anything, they’re not pointing, they’re not walking,” study researcher Erika Bergelson, of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “But actually, under the surface, they’re trying to put together the things in the world with the words that go with them.”
Her research partner, Daniel Swingley, explains further:
“They’re not going to give us back witty repartee, but they understand some of it. And the more they know, the more they can build on what they know.”
So the only thing cooing or speaking in ungrammatical sentences do is expose children to fewer words.“We go to park,” or “You want banana?” is not easier for a baby to understand than, “We are going to the park today” or “Do you want a banana?” And “aba bada bada” is just meaningless for you both.
Instead of baby talk, try something experts call “parentese” (also called ‘motherese’ or infant-directed speech). ‘Parentese’ — which fathers can use as well as mothers — is a slower speaking style that involves a higher, exaggerated pitch, shorter sentences, simpler (but correct) grammar, and elongated vowels” “Whoooo’s a clean baby? You are! Yes you aaaare.” “Whaaaaat are we eating today? Apples!”
The benefits of parentese
- It helps babies learn to understand tone of voice. Adults modify pitch to express emotion (just think about the last time your partner said “I’m fine” and you knew they weren’t). This intuiting of meaning is a learned skill; parentese, which uses swooping, exaggerating pitches helps infants associate a change in pitch with change in emotion.
- It builds babies’ vocabulary. Babies are bombarded with stimuli that adults have long since learned to tune out. Which is why the slowness and hyper-articulation of parentese is helpful – it gives them time to distinguish individual words and absorb them.
- It keeps babies engaged. Content here isn’t important – you could be talking to you baby to comfort him, to narrate his experience, or to show him some love. But the gentle way parentese is delivered builds a two-way communication channel that encourages your baby to respond in coos, smiles, giggles — and eventually, in speech.
- It encourages social interaction. Since babies respond better to parentese than to typical adult speech, that channel of constant communication eases the child into regular interaction and communication with others.
Why babble nonsense at your baby, when you could be instilling thousands of words and laying a solid foundation for a lifetime of learning? Think an itty witty wit about that, mommy-wommy. Or rather: Thiiiiink about that!