Tips For Talking To Your Baby

Transcript of this week's "Developmental Thought," an excerpt from the full episode. This episode covers tips on ways to communicate with babies, the innate reasons we modify our voices when we talk to babies, and the research that supports those changes! For additional information, music, play ideas and the complete interactive family experience, please listen to the entire episode

Who’s that little baby? Whooooooo is that?! Are youuuu my little baby? Yes you are! Yes you are! Ohhh, sweet baby! 

Yup, we’ve all heard somebody speaking like this to a baby. Many of you out there listening probably recognize yourselves. It may not be your style, and it may be a bit too dramatic and ridiculous-sounding for some, but there’s actually a reason behind the innate desire many of us have to prolong syllables, use a higher pitch, slow down our rate of speech, use longer pauses and shorter sentences, use a greater variety of pitches, and use repetition in our intonations. Now, the characteristics I just described don’t always result in one’s speech sounding like the example I gave a minute ago. But there are intonational and other linguistic components that have been studied and compared all around the world, and that are used specifically when adults are speaking to babies. It’s called “infant-directed speech.” Some people refer to it as “motherese,” “parentese,” or even “baby talk.” The specifics of infant-directed speech vary slightly depending on the language, but appear in varying degrees in all languages - including Sign Language!

There’s actually a reason behind the innate desire many of us have to prolong syllables, use a higher pitch, slow down our rate of speech, use longer pauses and shorter sentences, use a greater variety of pitches, and use repetition in our intonations.

So, why do we do it? What good is it for our babies? I’m going to get further into this in a moment, but first, I want to draw your attention to an important connection: what do these characteristics of infant-directed speech remind you of - let’s go over it again… repetitive intonation, higher and greater variety of pitches… does that sound to you like music? We’ve spoken in previous episodes about why we sing to young children, but how fascinating is this? The natural tendency of infant-directed speech is to actually make ourselves sound more like rhythmic or melodic music makers!  Check out my post about the Top 10 Musicians Every Family Should Know!

What does the research say - why do we use infant-directed speech? If we all do it, in practically every language, it must serve some function, right? Researchers believe that there are many reasons for this. It is likely that infant-directed speech helps infants to determine a caregiver’s intentions - the “prosody” or the natural melody of speech (inflection, intonation) is something that infants pay attention to, and pay attention to for a longer period of time than typical adult speech patterns, suggesting that infant-directed speech actually aids in their cognitive development

Research has actually shown that infants prefer to listen to infant-directed speech when compared to what we can refer to as “adult-directed speech,” or, normal speech patterns in adults. They’re also more responsive - they look longer and focus more (again, this is shown also with deaf infants who are seeing infant-directed signing! Even when infants are sleepingtheir brains respond more to hearing infant-directed speech (than to typical adult speech patterns).

Do you want more developmental information & activity ideas for your infant?

Be sure to check out Strength In Words' infant enrichment curriculum, 

The Heart Of It

Research also suggests that infant-directed speech helps infants piece apart syllables and discriminate between syllables as well as categorize different vowels in their native language. In addition, it may help them to recognize when one word ends and another begins, as well as recognize words, helping them to process speech and language

So, we see that the use of infant-directed speech likely has an effect on almost all major areas of development, including social/emotional, cognitive, and communicative development. Now, again, I’m not saying that you have to be gushy-gushy with your little one to stimulate his brain. But when you speak to your infant or young toddler, and you sing to your infant or toddler, remember that when you repeat what you say, when you ask them a question (even when they can’t answer), when you point at something and look back at your little one, when you speak a bit more slowly or with slightly more inflection than you would with another adult, you don’t sound ridiculous to them - in fact, you sound more interesting! 

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References & Resources:

Fernald, A. (1992)). Human maternal vocalizations to infants as biologically relevant signals: An evolutionary perspective. In J. H. Barkow & L. Cosmides (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 391-428). London: Oxford University Press.

Saint-Georges, C., Chetouani, M., Cassel, R., Apicella, F., Mahdhaoui, A., Muratori, F., … Cohen, D. (2013). Motherese in Interaction: At the Cross-Road of Emotion and Cognition? (A Systematic Review). PLoS ONE8(10), e78103.

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Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP

Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in work with pre-verbal infants, toddlers, non-verbal children, and their families. The Strength In Words podcast and blog were created as an additional resource for families of young children with infants & toddlers of all developmental levels. It is not intended to be a substitute for speech and language therapy.