Coo, Coo, Babble, Babble

Baby talk...or not?

“Babba go bye-bye.” “Give Mamma the nooo-nooo, Ry-ry.” “Upsie-doodle, bubbykins!”

We’ve all used it, and our babies— if not our friends and relatives— know exactly what we mean. It’s baby talk, also known as “motherese,” and every culture around the world has its version of it. It feels only natural for adults to modify their language when speaking to babies and young children. We shorten words, use repetition, vary and exaggerate pitch, thus making our speech simpler and more sing-song. We may sound silly to others, but it’s music to our babies’ ears.

And until recently, most researchers have agreed: motherese helps parents and babies communicate, and even aids in language acquisition. But a new study published last fall in the journal Cognitive Psychology raises a new question: How much baby talk is too much?

Janellen Huttenlocher, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, studied the effects of preschool teachers’ use of complicated language— longer sentences, higher level vocabulary— in the classroom. She found that children exposed to complex language had better language skills, both in comprehension and usage. This held true also for children whose mothers used richer language. According to Lisa Washington, a teacher quoted in Psychology Today, “Grown-ups feel they have to talk slowly or loudly with a sing-song voice to kids.” But this kind of talk— baby talk— does not, ultimately, benefit them.

So what to do? At what point does motherese go from being a help to being a hindrance? Surely there is nothing wrong when we coo and babble along with our babies. And certainly, speaking to young children as if they’re little professors feels unnatural and wrong, and is likely to be ineffective to boot. Here are some pointers for the use of baby talk, to make sure your child gets all the benefits of it but none of the burden:

  1. Take your cue from your child. Don’t hang on to baby talk because you like it, but don’t abandon it before your child is ready. Pay attention to how your child responds to you, and listen to how he or she is developing. When your child is beginning to experiment with more complete sentences, reflect that in your own language.
  2. Play games with language. Try rhyming words with your child’s name, replacing words in familiar songs and coming up with silly words to describe your child’s world. Games are a way to keep language fun and playful while enriching your child’s understanding of sounds and meanings.
  3. Don’t shy away from vocabulary. Adults often underestimate children’s ability to process more difficult vocabulary. But children have a need to label their world: provide your young child with words to describe feelings (disappointed, worried, excited); sounds, colors and textures (soft, bright, pale, rough); and ideas (interesting, fair, intelligent).
  4. Sing! Singing is a natural and fun way to introduce vocabulary and to attune your child to sounds and rhythms. Don’t worry if you have a tin ear. Your child won’t even notice.
  5. Preserve elements of baby talk for special times. One of the essential benefits of baby talk is the way it reinforces the emotional bond between parent and child. Don’t feel embarrassed to use cutesy, babyish language with your slightly older child once in a while, for instance at bedtime or when he or she is hurt or sad. After all, one of the most important uses of language is to convey feelings, and as the parent, no one knows better how to comfort your child than you.