Language & Communication Development

Revealing the Science Behind Baby Talk: A research-based look into the conversations between infant and adult

Laurabeth Arvison Bucur, M.A., CCC-SLP
June 27, 2024

Revealing the Science Behind Baby Talk: A research-based look into the conversations between infant and adult

Laurabeth Arvison Bucur, M.A., CCC-SLP
June 27, 2024

Some find it endearing, some find it downright annoying. But we’ve all done it. We’ve all used “baby talk.” Whether speaking to our own babies or to our precious fur-babies, there is science (and a great deal of research) behind the rhythmic voice we use with our tiniest conversation partners.

When we think of “baby talk,” also known as “infant directed speech” or “motherese,” we tend to all imagine the same pattern of speech. It sounds sweet, cutesy even. More rhythmic than we are used to in our adult conversations. As we break down the speech and language, there are some components of infant directed speech that seem to be present for all caregivers. One of these is pitch. When we talk with infants or toddlers, we tend to use a higher pitch and a greater range of pitches when compared to adult-to-adult speech. This exaggerated change in pitch can help infants to differentiate speech sounds within our words. In addition, a softer tone is added to the speech. Researchers theorize that this softening of tone evolved in an effort to connect emotionally with infants, helping them to learn to regulate their emotions (Martin & Sanchez, 2022).

Adults also tend to use repetition, simplified vocabulary, and more concise sentence structure during infant-directed speech. For example, I believe you will be hard-pressed to find an adult and infant discussing the current state of the stock market. Instead, you will often hear caregivers narrating activities of interest to the baby, e.g., “I see a school bus! BIG school bus! Yellow bus!” These components of infant directed speech seem to be universal. It has been proven that even members of language isolate communities, such as the Hadza people in Tanzania, speak to infants in a very similar manner to you and I (Martin & Sanchez, 2022).

According to researchers at the University of Florida, these components of infant-directed speech assist babies in learning to produce their own motor movements for speech. It is believed that by changing our pitch, exaggerating our sounds, and shortening our sentences, we are imitating sounds that would be produced by a smaller vocal tract. This may help infants learn what speech sounds may sound like when they attempt to babble and produce those precious first words (Clark, 2021). Mimicking sounds that would be produced by a smaller vocal tract can help the baby to develop their perception of speech into their production of speech.

All in all, “baby talk” acts as a tool to hold an infant's attention, create an emotional connection between caregiver and infant, and foster linguistic development. So next time you are engaged with a little one, notice your words. Notice your change in pitch, how you tend to exaggerate speech sounds and soften your tone. Observe which vocabulary you choose to accentuate and how you instinctively shorten your phrases. Take a second to appreciate that infant-directed speech is not just the cutest thing you’ve ever heard, it is also an instinctual pattern of speech that helps to grow and develop little brains.

References:

Martin, M., & Sanchez, G. J. (2022, July 31). The science is in: Everyone recognizes and uses baby talk with infants. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2022/07/23/1113206642/baby-talk-parenting-language-research

Clark, A. (2021, December 10). Using “baby talk” with infants isn’t just cute: It could help them learn to make words. University of Florida News. https://news.ufl.edu/2021/12/the-importance-of-baby-talk/

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