Why a little baby talk is good for your toddler

Have you ever heard someone say: “Don’t talk to your baby”? Parents of infants tell us they’ve been told this by friends, family members, and even healthcare professionals.

We have every reason to tell you the opposite. As the researchers who led a research study that involved over 2,200 babies in 67 labs in 16 countries, we can give you good advice. We have confirmed that babies love to hear baby talk, or “infant directed speech,” as baby researchers refer to it.

What is infant-directed speech? Imagine telling a six-month-old to “look at the ball.” Imagine how you’d say the same phrase to your co-worker or a friend.

You’ll notice that your tone is different when talking to a child. It is more animated and has more ups and downs. When speaking to babies, we use shorter sentences with longer pauses. We also exaggerate some words, particularly when naming objects.

When talking to babies, people also use simpler terms and ask more specific questions. Even change the way some words are spoken.

Creating a bond between you and your baby

What are the benefits of all that baby talk for your baby? All those melodic and rhythmic properties will grab your baby’s interest. It’s good to get a baby’s attention!

The more a child is exposed to language directed at them, the more they will learn and process language faster. Infant-directed speech helps caregivers and babies establish a strong bond.

Some argue that other characteristics of infant-directed speech are more helpful to language development. Infant-directed speech is easier than adult language and gives babies a good starting point to develop more complex vocabulary and grammatical structure.

Global Variations

It has been well-known for many years that North American caregivers speak to their babies in a way that is aimed at them. Babies also seem to enjoy it. While baby talk has been studied in many languages, the majority of research has focused on English-speaking North Americans. We’ve been pondering a question regarding cultural differences.

Baby talk is a common thing among babies all over the world. Researchers have studied something mostly applicable to babies in college towns in North America. One small study found that North American parents spoke the most baby talk in all six languages tested. Even Europeans have said that our North American baby talk is embarrassing.

In some communities, very little of what infants hear is directed at them. Examples include the Tsimane community in Bolivia or certain Mayan communities from Mexico. Parents don’t talk to their babies very much in those communities, and they certainly aren’t talking with the baby. Most of what they hear is adults talking amongst themselves. These babies are able to learn their language quite easily.

Researchers from 16 countries came together to investigate this question. Each lab conducted the same study using the same methods to measure infants’ preferences. We wanted to confirm that infants’ preference for directed speech is real.

Babies in our sample preferred to hear moms talk to their infants, overhearing the same woman talking to an adult.

This preference was not unique to North American culture.

Similar results were found in a companion study at Concordia University that examined bilingual infants. The study was led by Krista B. Byers-Heinlein. Despite having a richer and more diverse range of linguistic experiences, infants who grow up with multiple languages prefer to hear baby talk.

Speak to your baby.

Do you mean that parents should encourage their babies to talk? Yes, absolutely! In the communities that we tested, babies prefer baby talk. Other research also supports this.

We still have more work to be done. It was not possible to test all babies. Our study did not include South America or Africa. We are working on new projects in collaboration with laboratories in these places.

Our research shows that a variety of factors influence infants’ preferences in terms of how we speak to them. In different communities, and sometimes even in the same one, caregivers talk to babies differently.

There is no “right” way to talk to your child. Be assured, however, that talking to your baby is an important part of promoting their language development.