Baby talk has always been a provocative subject amongst parents and a big challenge for new dads, but how beneficial is it?
For some parents, baby talk is a peeve, but for others, it’s the most natural thing in the world; they just find themselves doing it the moment their little one arrives. So, is this an annoying trivialisation of language or actually a very useful tool for helping babies develop?
Talk this way
Professor Anne Fernald of Stanford University found that chatting to infants from a very young age helped them to grasp the rules and rhythms of language, and responding to their babbles and noises in a conversational exchange can teach them the basic ‘give and take’ of verbal communication. She firmly believes it’s important to start talking to babies from day one!
Forming a good relationship with your baby is also influenced by talking. Voice is one of the main ways we recognise someone, and how we tell what they’re feeling. Imagine a phone call with someone you are close to, you know almost instantly when they pick up whether they are happy, sad or angry.
We all look for reassurance from voices when in new situations and this rings true with babies. Understanding how you are feeling and reacting to a situation helps your baby to build up a picture of you. It can also mean less crying, as they will soon find reassurance in your calm voice when a situation has unnerved them.
Does it matter if parents ban babbling?
If you’re talking to your baby, then that’s all that matters, right? Actually, the way you talk to your child is vital! When we baby talk, we not only raise the pitch of our voice, but also introduce a larger range of tones which reinforce the emotional side of the message we are giving. We also use repetition, which is useful for developing vocabulary.
In a study by the University of Connecticut, researchers found that those children whose parents consistently used a higher pitch and elongated vowels knew nearly three times more words by age two. The exaggeration within this type of speech engages your baby more, making the message easier to understand and therefore learn. One-on-one conversation was also found to be the most beneficial.
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t need to simplify the vocabulary, although words like ‘kitty’ and ‘doggy’ are thought to be easier for infants to say with clarity, aiding our understanding of their speech. In fact, theorists have noted that we tend to add words to baby talk, such as ‘Choo-choo train’. Interestingly, these words are often descriptive words which relate to the object we are talking about. Perhaps this tendency is us making the initial purpose of an object clearer or the object itself easier to identify?
What we do know is that doubling up words can help babies achieve and learn the correct sound. However, children who struggle verbally can find this very frustrating, growing exasperated and angry when communication fails. The younger your child develops speech, the less frustrated they will have to feel about communication.
That being said, anything we can do that helps them learn speech easily and quickly is important and beneficial for both of you. Remember when your newborn was crying and cross and you wished they could tell you what was wrong? Those moments of desperately wondering will be gone once your child can explain for themselves.
The dad deficit
Women are generally known to be the more verbally communicative sex and a recent study showed fathers responded to their baby’s cooing and babbling only 27% – 30% of the time, compared to mothers 88% – 94% of the time. This huge discrepancy naturally resulted in the babies showing a preference for their mother’s voice.
Now we know just how important verbal communication can be, dads definitely need to talk to their babies a lot more. Baby talk can help your baby’s development and it doesn’t take long to get over the initial hang-ups like feeling silly or not knowing what to say.
If you can’t bear it, you should still chat away to your child normally. The talking itself is important and your child needs to hear your voice, not only to help develop their language skills but to strengthen your bond with them.
If you struggle with finding the words, try these suggestions:
Narrate what you are doing – Are you bathing your baby? Explain what you’re doing as you go along: ‘And now we’ll wash your face and get rid of all the food from dinner time.’
Use a toy to inspire you – Grab a teddy and start interacting with your child that way. Use the teddy’s name and let your baby know what he’s doing: ‘Oh look, Jack! What’s Ben the teddy doing? He’s dancing!’
Try simple nursery rhyme songs – ‘Clap hands’ is a good one for helping your baby associate words with actions.
Take a pause when you ask a question for them to answer you – Even if for a while it’s just babbles!
Look around you – Chat to your baby about what you can see. Is a plane zooming overhead? Can you see that ginger cat in your garden again? This chatting grows your baby’s interest in their surroundings and the more interested they are, the more they’ll learn!