Maternity Leave

Let's Talk Baby


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During our Father's Day BBQ, I asked the parents of two baby boys: "Where do you stand on baby talk?" "Hate it," the father said, while Mom admitted to speaking in a high voice and making funny faces.

I agree with the dad, but I find myself behaving like the mom. Technically she and I engage in something called parentese, which is apparently good for your kid. The baby talk I was referring to sounds like what I encountered recently at a baby stuff store. Adults were speaking to their "soooper sweetums" and asking does "baybee-waybee, wanna binky-winky?" I thought to myself 'aren't you making your kids, stoopid-woopid or at least laying the groundwork for a mean speech impediment?' I mean, Buddy Hinton was right.

Baby talk between adults is really revolting, but what about between parent and child? Do you think it's normal behavior or a really ridiculous learned practice?



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We do find ourselves using a language when talking to the baby that we don't necessarily use with other adults. It is somewhere between LOLspeak and traditional baby talk.

Sent by GroovyBrent | 3:42 PM | 6-18-2008

I'm OK with a certain amount of parentese. You can tell that the babies like it, because they focus on you when you do it. However, the sweetums thing is annoying. I don't even like it when people do it to my dogs. The dogs think people are slightly demented when the do.

Sent by Laura Law | 3:44 PM | 6-18-2008

Mostly it's stupid and must be learned. I think the sing-song tone and the facial expressions are good for the infant and seem to be universal. But adding -eee to every word known to man makes everyone in the sitation seem a bit less credible and a bit more desperate. Maybe it is not a learned behavior but rather a result of severe sleep deprivation ....

Sent by T. Weiss | 3:45 PM | 6-18-2008

As a father of 2 with one on the way, as well as half owner of an in-home daycare, I can tell you baby talk irritates the fire out of me. My vote is for ridiculous.

Sent by Thomas Broadus | 3:45 PM | 6-18-2008

Well, it depends on the age of the child you are speaking to. If you are still baby-talking to a 5 year old child, I don't think you are doing them any favors in terms of increasing brain power. However, there are a number of studies out there that show "parentese" is an important way that babies learn their native tongue. There are only (I think) 3 cultures in the world that don't use "parentese". The babies are actually taking a sort of statistical analysis of their language input based on what the "parent" is telling them is important, i.e. - exagerated vowels. So, in the end if you are saying "baby waybee" with incredibly good "a"s and "e"s then you are fine otherwise it is just annoying and not doing anything for your baby's brain.

If anyone is interested The Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences focuses on this type of research and here is a link to their site that has tons of information about this idea, specifically Dr. Patricia Kuhl's work. As an aside there is a neat video on the site showing the McGurk effect, it illustrates why it is so difficult to develop voice recognition software.

Sent by robin | 3:59 PM | 6-18-2008

Baby talk is okay between adult and baby but not between adult and adult.

Sent by Steve Petersen | 4:16 PM | 6-18-2008

I can't remember what book I read after our first was born, but it essentially said the baby talk was great for the first year especially when mirroring what the baby does because you are communicating with the baby (taking turns, etc.). After the first year, the baby should be working on mirroring your speech, so don't talk like a baby. Let them copy you as you help them work on their phonics and picture associations.

Sent by Anthony Hunt | 4:28 PM | 6-18-2008

My wife started something which I've picked up too. She'll say to my son, "Are you happy, appy, p-p-y?" Because of her Kenyan accent, I thought the spelling out at the end was some Kikuyu word until she explained it to me.

Now, I've picked it up too, and adding a few of my own with, "Are you fussy, ussy, s-s-y?" or "grumpy, umpy, m-p-y?" So, in a way, we're giving him spelling lessons. At least that's what I'm saying.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 4:38 PM | 6-18-2008

When my second cousins were babies I never talked baby talk in the rhyming nonsense word way. I did and still do talk in a higher pitched voice. I tend to say things like "how's the little buddy?" or "your food's tasty? tasty food?" Stuff like that. Having taken child psych, I understand the necessity of voice variation and facial expressions but the uber cute rhyming doesn't sit well.

Sent by Sarah Lee | 5:05 PM | 6-18-2008

babies learn through pattern recognition not reason. What they hear in baby talk is affection - it's the tone that is comfy. In traditional societies, baby goes to work with mum and they hear adults talking normally - that is where they get the right pattern - so they get both. Lots of adult and some baby.

My hunch is that all of either is not ideal.

PS dogs do understand a lot of words. A border collie may understand up to 200 words - similar to a 2 year old!

But they too also like some baby talk - it is verbal grooming - they pick up the tone - they also will squeal and rumble back too. Their version of baby talk?

Sent by Robert Paterson | 5:13 PM | 6-18-2008

Babies show a preference for "parentese" and this effect shows up in very young babies.

Also there is a difference in the quality of sound/vowels you make for your dog vs the sound you make for a baby. People use a higher pitch for dogs and for babies you use a high but also varied pitch for a baby.

Sent by robin | 6:00 PM | 6-18-2008

I concur with Sarah Lee. I just can't do the rhyming nonsense talk. Personally, it just doesn't feel right coming out of my mouth. I do, however, vary my pitch/tone going high when expressing happy things and low when expressing something more serious. All the while using words that are found in the dictionary. My baby cousin and my niece react the same way to me as they do to my grandmother doing the goo-goo talk.

Sent by Arlene | 6:07 PM | 6-18-2008

Ohhh just wait til little Ike turns my darling daughter.....then you'll wish you could have back that baby you talked so stupidly to (didn't anybody warn you that those sweet little babies become evil and possessed when they're teens?) There's nothing wrong with baby talk as a matter of fact, I talk baby talk to the cat all the that stoopid too??? :P

Sent by Julie in North Carolina | 11:28 PM | 6-18-2008

As if parents don't have enough to worry about, with everyone telling them what to do and what not to do! Just what are the risks to children? Do we actually see 8-year-old kids talking baby talk? Is there some concern that because of undue babytalking from his mother, Barack Obama's going to suddenly start calling Hillary his snookie-ookums?

Alison: you're obviously getting bored. Come back to work!

Sent by Marc Naimark | 4:32 AM | 6-19-2008

@ Marc: Do we actually see 8-year-old kids talking baby talk?

I have! It was shocking. The poor child was at least 8.

Speaking babytalk may be hard-wired...but so is farting in public. Let's avoid both, shall we?

Sent by Nathan in Holland | 8:31 AM | 6-19-2008

My fianc?? and I talk about this issue a lot. I know growing up that my family did not consciously use baby talk, and it led to precociously verbal youngsters (complete sentences coming within a few weeks of talking). Since E and I are very verbal people, we'd like to see the same thing.

Besides, if you focus on baby talk, you lose the opportunity of vocalizing for the child. Half of the fun of having a non-verbal baby is making up what they actually would be saying :).

Sent by Kate | 9:11 AM | 6-19-2008

it's pretty hard to avoid the baby talk when they're just so dang cute. alison, your voice is very, very missed in the morning in my cubicle!

Sent by Holly | 11:25 AM | 6-19-2008

I have no real opinion on baby talk at this moment, but can I just point out that I love that they make onesies that say "Baby Pirates" on them? Now that's pretty fantastic.

Sent by Sarah | 1:15 PM | 6-19-2008

I sat next to a woman at the pool yesterday who was deliberately talking to her one year old in complete, adult like sentences. The kids didn't pay a bit of attention to her. Meanwhile two little girls would come up to the baby and talk baby-talk to her ("Hi Baby-wabee", etc.) and the little one ate it up. Just sayin'

Mine are 7 and 9 now. I spoke parentese. Today they both speak at a normal or above age level.

Sent by Susie | 4:31 PM | 6-19-2008

Baby talk between adults- revolting. Baby talk from an adult toward a baby- just fine! Once the baby is over a year old, though, cut it out.

Sent by Tom Grant | 1:44 PM | 6-20-2008

Definitely a normal behavior- at least the higher pitch voice and exaggerated facial expressions. The important thing, in my opinion, is the interaction and bonding. I enjoy parentese, and coming up with ridiculous rhymes. To each their own. My 6 week old started smiling and laughing at three weeks with probably excessive amounts of parentese time. My four year old was smiling and laughing at the "normal" six weeks with significantly less parentese. This probably means nothing, and is normal variation. However, our second baby certainly smiles easier with a little parentese.

Sent by Anna | 2:57 PM | 6-30-2008

Cats, dogs, people, other mammals... we're all wired to recognize a high soft voice as comforting and happy. Lower, louder voices are recognized as not happy, perhaps neutral or even threatening. Using repetitive sounds helps prepare baby brains develop pattern recognition and affection for the adult doing the cooing. Like any other purely human behavior, some people will be missing the ability to set limits.

Sent by Maggie | 11:53 AM | 7-1-2008

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