Baby voice advantages?
December 22, 2009 1:46 AM   Subscribe

How do you decide which voice to talk to a baby in?

A lot of people talk to babies (and pets) in a strange voice only reserved for babies and pets, the "baby voice". It lets you say silly things, but what are the other advantages of using such a voice? Would talking to a baby in a normal voice look be odd? When do you decide to stop? Is it better not to do this at all?
posted by devnull to Human Relations (31 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Google phrase you need is "baby talk". There seems to be a weak consensus that it is an innate instinct in adults and likely good for the babies. Segment 2 of this Radiolab episode gets into some of the science in their usual entertaining way.
posted by abcde at 2:11 AM on December 22, 2009


It's just one of those natural instincts that we have towards our young, and is healthy and appropriate for the baby. Babies learn language faster from parents speaking that way, which is dubbed "motherese" or "parentese." You end up stopping it naturally once your child gets to the point where it isn't developmentally appropriate.
posted by autoclavicle at 2:15 AM on December 22, 2009


It's just one of those natural instincts that we have towards our young, and is healthy and appropriate for the baby. Babies learn language faster from parents speaking that way, which is dubbed "motherese" or "parentese." You end up stopping it naturally once your child gets to the point where it isn't developmentally appropriate.

Really?

My folks made it a point to only speak to their children (i.e. me and my siblings) in full-length, normal sentences.

I spoke at about 10 months old. In full, complete sentences. And when my palate didn't allow me to form a word properly, and they asked for clarification, I'd define the word I couldn't say.

While my siblings didn't speak that early, they certainly weren't delayed.

So I call poo on the it's-better-for-your-kid supposition.
posted by Netzapper at 2:30 AM on December 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I felt weird (and silly) doing it, probably because I'd only been exposed to it on television, and then not that much. My kids spoke at developmental normal milestones, both around 12 months. Not only did I talk to them normally, but I also used biological terms for body parts and explained the "facts of life" from a very early age. The only noteworthy result from this was my daughter asking my very staid, prudish mother if she had a 'gina, while at the checkout at the shopping centre.

Our cats, who we also speak to conversationally, don't appear to have benefitted from this at all. They, as always, do what they want, and we facilitate this.
posted by b33j at 3:34 AM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


It lets you say silly things, but what are the other advantages of using such a voice? Would talking to a baby in a normal voice look be odd? When do you decide to stop? Is it better not to do this at all?

Using "baby talk" seems to get more response from the babies I know (and certainly mine).
Saying "Hey, look at me" in my normal voice will be soundly ignored, while the same phrase in a higher-pitched, slightly elongated form gets immediate attention. So for me, it's reinforced behavior and really the main reason I do it.
I don't tend to talk in baby-talk all the time. For instance, if we are going through the store, I just carry on my normal inner-dialogue out loud in my normal voice. I suppose it might look odd if you don't see the baby, but I've found that carrying a baby forgives a whole bunch of behaviour normally considered odd.

As for "Is it better or worse for the baby":
Well, most "studies" on the subject seem to consist of a lot of anecdata and self-reporting. It does seem to be a universal thing amongst many language groups, if that sways you at all.
posted by madajb at 3:59 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Saying "Hey, look at me" in my normal voice will be soundly ignored, while the same phrase in a higher-pitched, slightly elongated form gets immediate attention.

I would consider the possibility that this is because most of your speech is background noise, and since you mostly address your child in that voice, your child hears that voice and on some level goes "Yay! Attention for me! He's talking to me!" or the pre-linguistic equivalent.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:26 AM on December 22, 2009


I would consider the possibility that this is because most of your speech is background noise, and since you mostly address your child in that voice, your child hears that voice and on some level goes "Yay! Attention for me! He's talking to me!" or the pre-linguistic equivalent.

Totally possible, I won't claim to have any idea what goes through my baby's mind.
Though I have done both while holding my child and speaking directly to her while making eye contact.
"Baby talk" still gets a smile while normal voice doesn't.
posted by madajb at 4:41 AM on December 22, 2009


Baby talk doesn't mean speaking like Elmo (I detest the muppet, primarily because using a baby-talking character seems to go against everything Sesame Street was ever about). Baby talk means raising the pitch of your voice. Infants respond better to slightly higher pitched sounds because they can apparently hear them better. Using full words and sentences is important for verbal development. The intentional mispronunciations used by so many people who talk to infants drives me nuts, it is embarassing for me to hear it. I don't know if my kid cares at all yet, but I don't look forward to him asking me why Grandma talks like that...
posted by caution live frogs at 5:00 AM on December 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


There's some confusion about what is meant by "baby talk." You say "it lets you say silly things." If you mean things like "Oh, look at that silly willy little horsie! Let's give it some yum-yum for its tum-tum!," I don't think that's going to help children in any significant way, and it's going to give them a "baby-only" vocabulary that they then have to replace with real words as they grow older. On the other hand, if by "baby talk" you mean a sort of exaggerated pronunciation with varied pitch and clear pauses between words (this is hard to capture in print!) "Oh, Helloooooooooo there! How. Are. You?" then there is some evidence that it helps speed language acquisition. There is some evidence that the latter form of baby talk is somewhat innate (people tend to do it without really thinking about it) whereas the former is a conscious choice, although why my great aunts did that is still a mystery to me.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:39 AM on December 22, 2009 [13 favorites]


The most important thing is that you talk to your baby, all the time, from day one. Start a running narative about everything you are doing, "Let's see, where is the cheese that we buy every week?". So many folks get busy with the demands of life and new parenthood and assume their baby is a passive observer for the first year. They can and are soaking everything up so always converse with them. It feels weird at first but you will soon be rewarded with gummy smiles and gurgles! And, some people will give you the oddest stares as you walk around the store pointing everything out to your newborn. That's always fun!! Sometimes I add some Klingon in just to really freak them out (the eyeballer, not the baby). Happy talking!!
posted by pearlybob at 6:11 AM on December 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


I talk to my son in a happier, more excited version of my natural voice. Luckily it comes pretty naturally, as I am generally happier and more excited when I am with my son. I also avoid sarcasm, which has been a bit of a learning curve.

Also, I totally agree with pearlybob. Talk, talk, talk to your baby! After a while it feels perfectly natural to narrate every single thing you are doing (even in public!). I can provide anecdotal evidence that it helps, as my son is now an 18-month old jabberjaw with more words than every other kid in his age bracket that we know.

And he's cuter. (Although this is an empirical truth, not anecdotal)
posted by joelhunt at 6:27 AM on December 22, 2009 [10 favorites]


Unless you (as the parent) carry baby talk to an extreme, this "replacement with real words" happens quite naturally and without any major trauma on the part of the [typically-developing] child. (If a child has special needs related to language, then presumably the parents are following a therapist's advice on "real" words.) I don't understand the "don't speak baby talk to your kid" crowd. Typical kids eventually figure it all out without any major intervention or delays to their development.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:28 AM on December 22, 2009


what Pater Aletheias said. I've had to have a word to my mother for speaking to our kiddo in her version of baby talk ("does oo want a bottle?" grar. ) But we certainly over-enunciate and narrate everything we do. And speak a little more excitedly and praise to reinforce behavior. All things that you don't do to older children and adults.
posted by gaspode at 6:32 AM on December 22, 2009


Seeing as how a baby's first sounds are often high pitched coos, it makes sense to talk back to them in a similar manner. I've had many a "conversation" with a baby using nothing but "aaaahhhhh!" sounds. They seem to like it. Gotta learn the vowels and this seems like a good way to teach them (as well as have some fun making them smile).
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:35 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


My boyfriend's stepsister had a baby boy eleven months ago and we visited him recently at my boyfriend's dad's house. And let me tell you, there was a whole lot of high-pitched, near-squealing conversation - but remarkably no dent in our normal vocabularies. At least, what I found myself doing without even realizing it was talking to the baby in really varied vocal pitches and tones, but the actual content of what I was saying wasn't too different.

When we talk to our cat, though, all bets are off. However, our cat has basically already decided how to respond to our nonsense and at worst we (my boyfriend and I) look a little addled in front of our friends while our cat just sits and squints skeptically at us.
posted by foulowl at 6:44 AM on December 22, 2009


Best answer: In developmental psychology, this phenomenon is usually referred to as child-directed speech. It's relatively universal across cultures. Repeating words, exaggerating intonation, and using short sentences all serve the purpose of making it easier to pick words out of the speech stream and match them up with meanings. CDS is also really good at getting a child's attention. Using nonconventional words (e.g., blankie, tum-tum) is neither good nor bad, some studies suggest that it may aid morphological development.

It has been studied using scientific methods. A couple of papers on the topic:

- Socioeconomic status affects early vocabulary development via maternal speech
- Indeterminacy in language acquisition: the role of child directed speech and joint attention
- A comparison of foreigner- and infant-directed speech
posted by supramarginal at 6:55 AM on December 22, 2009 [11 favorites]


Best answer: Here's an article about a (in my opinion) fascinating experiment on baby talk.

The short version: normally, when people are speaking, they may pronounce different vowels very similarly. But when people are speaking to babies, they tend to sharply differentiate between vowel sounds in a way that is not apparent to the naked ear but that can be seen pretty clearly in phonological analysis. I don't know if this happened in the experiment the linked article is about or a similar experiment, but if I recall correctly, the researchers recorded people talking to babies and dogs and found that, while infant- and animal-directed speech may sound identical to people, this vowel-differentiation phenomenon only occurred when people were talking to babies.
posted by pluckemin at 6:56 AM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


True story: We used normal adult words from day one (with some simplifications). One day, when she was 4, we had to take our daughter to Children's Emergency for urinary problems.

After the requisite hours of waiting the doctor comes in and starts his exam. A few questions for me, then one I can't answer - does it hurt when she pees? I say I don't know, why don't you ask her? So he turns to my 4-year-old, crouches down and says, "Pee Owee?" A puzzled look from my daughter. He rephrases it in some other baby talk dialect. More confusion. Finally I say to her, "Does it hurt when you go to the bathroom?" And he finally gets his answer.

So yeah, add me to the "Speak normally" group. But feel free to use the "ooojaboo gaboo" once in a while too (possibly stopping it once they start having friends over :)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:13 AM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Nonsense sounds that leave out softer consonants and emphasize the hard consonants often get a bigger response from babies than normal speech - most likely because it's easier for them to hear and wrap their minds around them. My three-month-old gets a huge kick out of it when someone says "abadabadabadaba" to her. That's what gets her to smile and talk back to us. She also responds well to real (but simple) words in a high pitched, excited, over-enunciated manner - that's what we use at the grocery store. I do sometimes feel like an idiot saying things like "Now let's buy some mustard! Where's the mustard? There it is! Hooray for mustard!!" - but it gets lots of grins and kicks and coos. If I talk normally, she usually seems to listen, but she doesn't react as much.

That's what encourages me to speak 'baby talk.' Smiles and coos. As they get older, there's not as big of a difference between their response to baby talk and normal speech, and the baby talk goes away.
posted by Dojie at 7:15 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Use normal words, but speak with a sweet, happy, loving tone. More love = happier baby. I had to learn this.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:20 AM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


I have three nephews (4 yrs, 2 yrs & 5 mos) and we never talked to them in baby talk. The two older nephews were both very early talkers, and the youngest nephew is well on his way to being an early talker. Conversely, I have good friends whose 1.5 year old sons still don't say much more than a bunch of noises and they talked to their kids in baby talk.

When we talked to the kids as babies, we always carried on "conversations" with them, even if they were just babbling, and I really think that that made the difference in how early/well they talked.
posted by TurquoiseZebra at 7:21 AM on December 22, 2009


devnull, I think your original question did focus on the phenomenon of the voice people use for babies (and dogs and other animals). It seems some people are confusing "baby voice" for "baby talk," and they are two very different things.

"Baby voice" is what others have referred to as the higher-pitched, higher-intensity voice that seems to come naturally to some people. I see a baby (I'm talking infant, not toddler) and I instantly raise my voice a pitch and lengthen my words. I almost always get smiles. I do not, however, use nonsense syllables or refer to myself in the third person (my mother STILL does this with my 12 and 9 year old children. Argh.). That's "baby talk." When a baby is talking to me, however, I will respond in kind. If the baby is saying, "Ahhbaabaabaa," I'll echo. But it's not a constant thing. It's an interaction and it gets the baby to smile, coo, kick his/her feet, and a bond is established. I also narrate everyday activities in a normal voice, perhaps a bit higher than normal. That's how they learn what words go with which objects/activities.

My kids were both early talkers and have always had better vocabularies than many of their peers. I think I'm backed up by studies that say the reason for that is because we talked to them all the time and we read to them from early ages. "Baby voice" and "baby talk" are different. There is a time and place for both, but just make sure that you're also just talking normally to your kid, too.
posted by cooker girl at 7:45 AM on December 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


One thing to keep in mind is that the anecdotes in here about early speakers and advanced verbal skills most likely have very little to do with how baby talk affects children.

Verbal people have verbal kids. Early speech development is mostly based on brain structure. Kids that come from verbally advanced parents are more likely to have brains that can handle complex speech and also to get the stimulation and motivation that will help them learn it. People who place a high value on speaking normally to their kids were probably going to have kids with good verbal skills anyway.

Speaking baby talk to a three or four year old who is trying to learn the rules for good speech is probably a bad idea, but talking - in any way shape or form - to a baby is a vital. The baby doesn't have any idea what you're saying most of the time anyway and if the baby responds better to "ooh - wook at the wittle pookie-schnookums toesies!" than "Please direct your attention to your toes and note that they are diminutive." that's not a bad thing.
posted by Dojie at 8:39 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I just want to second both the difference between "baby voice" and "baby talk" and the value (or lack therefo) of anecdotal evidence.
Except where my own brilliant child is concerned, of course!
posted by Seamus at 9:32 AM on December 22, 2009


The last chapter of Nuture Shock talks about language acquisition. Apparently the purpose of baby talk is to help them break down from what sounds like an endless stream of nonsense into particular syllables that they can practice saying. This is only at the early stages though -- I want to say up to 1 year. But one interesting fact is that if babies can't see your mouth moving, they learn nothing, so if you're talking to your baby while doing your household chores, they tune you out, at least at this stage. It might be different for toddlers who are learning vocabulary.

But, according to the book, what really makes a huge difference in how quickly they pick up language isn't what the parent says at all, it's how the parent responds to the babbling. Apparently, if you consistently touch or caress the baby immediately after they babble something, they pick things up a lot faster.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:48 AM on December 22, 2009


Meh. It doesn't matter.

I spoke at about 10 months old. In full, complete sentences.

While this is ahead of the developmental milestones, it's a non-sustainable advantage and it really makes no difference whether you speak in full sentences at 10 months or 2 years as long as you get there.
posted by GuyZero at 1:49 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


You don't really "decide" this - it's instinctive to use babytalk, to me, anyway.
posted by yarly at 1:52 PM on December 22, 2009


Babies are people. Speak to them like you would any other person.
posted by coolguymichael at 2:03 PM on December 22, 2009


"Please direct your attention to your toes and note that they are diminutive."

For the record, I tried this earlier today, and the baby promptly tried to eat them.
I have thus concluded that, not only are toes diminutive, they are also delicious!
posted by madajb at 4:05 PM on December 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


I always said to myself that I would talk to my baby normally. But the fact of the matter is that if you speak to a baby in your usual voice, you get no reaction. When he was very young, my son only turned to look at me when I would raise the pitch of my voice, and speak in an exaggerated and very melodic (?) tone. I've kept doing it, although to a lesser extent. I noticed the same thing with other babies and other people, so it's not just me and/or him.

Note that -- as mentioned above -- this does not mean using dumbed-down words. A penis is not a peepee and he does not make owie, he hurts himself.
posted by Simon Barclay at 4:14 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought of this question this morning as my now 11 month old and I were discussing whether she wanted her morning num-nums. I've noticed that I have started making the transition away from baby voice. She's using a couple of real words, plus some consistent sounds (the 'num-num' word came from the sound she always makes when she's hungry) and she listens and responds to a normal speaking voice. I still use a high-pitched, soft voice during sleepy-cuddly time and a high-pitched, excited voice during focused play-time, but when we're just hanging out taking care of our regular business, I speak to her pretty normally and she seems fine with that. She still thinks "abadabadabadaba" is hilarious, but she's just as happy if I say it in my regular speaking voice as in the high-pitched exaggerated voice.

On the other hand, I have realized that I do still use the baby voice (but not baby talk) with my almost three-year-old from time to time. Again, mostly at sleepy-cuddly times. I don't think I ever do it with my five-year-old any more though.
posted by Dojie at 5:19 AM on August 12, 2010


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