Inside: Why experts say to skip baby talk and start talking to babies like adults if you want them to develop better language skills.
We all do it.
The high-pitched voice.
Silly made-up words.
When you see a baby, isn’t it almost automatic to switch into that goofy, exaggerated voice?
It almost feels like instinct to use a sing-song voice when speaking to infants, but it turns out that this so-called “baby talk” might be doing more harm than good!
How Do You Talk to a Baby?
Before I became a mother, I always wondered what I was “supposed” to say to a baby. When I met someone else’s little one, I was often at a loss for words.
Though instinctive, baby talk (goo-goo-gah-type of stuff) just felt wrong.
But what should I talk about?
The weather? Ask them what they’ve been up to?
It seemed a bit pointless to have a grown-up conversation with a baby, but it turns out that’s exactly what we should be doing!
Fast-forward to when I became a mother…
I left my job when my middle daughter was six months old, and as a stay at home mom, she was often my only company during the day.
So I talked to her.
I told her what I was doing, where we might go that day, or I would tell her about the objects around her.
Silence would have driven me crazy!
Plus I could see in my baby’s eyes that there was something going on in there. She wanted to communicate with me.
Within a few months she was already saying a few words, “da-da” being her favorite (it still is!)
By fifteen months, her vocabulary exploded to at least 40 words. I know this because her older sister had a little notebook where she kept tally – she loved watching her little sister learn new words!
It was amazing to actually hear such a little person express her thoughts and get to know what was going on inside that brain.
Why Experts Say You Should Talk to Babies Like Adults
When it comes to communicating with babies, research tells us a few key things:
- Nonsense words (think: goo-goo, ga-ga) do little, if anything to improve your infant’s language skills.
- Overhearing others talk does not have the same positive effect on speech development as talking to babies directly. (Study by Stanford University)
- Exaggerated or sing-song tones can help communicate meaning, and command a baby’s attention. However, this is primarily true when used in conjunction with actual words, not made-up ones. (Source: Lab for Infant Development and Language at the University of Waterloo)
- Pretending to understand what your baby says and responding in kind encourages babies to create sounds that more closely resemble real words. (Research from University of Iowa and Indiana University)
Baby talk isn’t necessarily all bad, but the science is pretty clear that talking to babies like adults is exponentially more beneficial to their overall language development.
As Professor Erika Hoff, a developmental psychologist at Florida Atlantic University, explains, “Children cannot learn what they don’t hear.”
5 Expert Tips to Increase Your Baby’s Vocabulary
These communication techniques can be used for both babies and toddlers to build language skills:
- Acknowledge that your baby is speaking to you — After a few months of ages, babies are usually clear about to whom they are communicating, engaging in direct eye contact for example. When you notice your baby trying to communicate with you, at the very least, acknowledge that you heard them. Even better, try asking a question to continue the conversation “What is that? Show me.”
- Repeat, repeat, repeat — I’ll say a word that I think my daughter might be able to learn, then pause and give her a chance to imitate it. If she’s quiet, but seems interested, I’ll repeat the same word three times so she can hear it and try again. If she still isn’t ready, I’ll just tell her “That’s ok, we’ll try again another time!” and go back to a word that IS in her vocabulary so we can end on a positive note.
- Help finish words or sentences — If a baby or toddler starts a word, then stops, you can help them finish it. For example, my youngest daughter used to say “thank,” and I’d add “Thank you!” Or she would grab her shoes and say “go” so I’d ask “Ready to go?” This helps babies learn where words fit in context.
- Take action — Adding physical movements can help babies who might be visual learners (if older kids and adults can be, why not babies?) An example is waving when saying “Hi!” or “Bye!” We will mimic many other actions when practicing words so my daughter can learn how they are used.
- Read every day — I never thought that a book could hold a baby’s interest, but our daughter LOVES to hear her favorite stories. She also enjoys pulling every single book out of her basket, sitting in the middle of the pile, and “reading” out loud to herself. Reading has been nothing short of amazing in developing the vocabulary of her older sister Lilu, who at seven years old can devour a chapter book in a single day. Experts agree that reading to your child (starting early and continuing even when they can read themselves) is a keystone habit that will raise both smart and kind kids.
Here are some of my daughter’s favorite books, which have been helpful in growing her vocabulary:
- Clifford’s Animal Sounds
- Noisy Farm (My First Touch and Feel Sound Book)
- Mommy and Me – this one is really old-school…it’s actually from when I was little!
Animal sounds have been very popular, probably because they are fun to repeat! She also likes rhymes and books with single words which are easier to learn. Check out more of her favorite books here — they’re perfect for the 6 months – 2 year age range.
What if I think my toddler has a speech disorder?
Just like with learning to walk, babies and toddlers develop language at their own pace. However, if you have concerns, you may look into an evaluation from a speech-language pathologist (SLP). SLPs are trained to recognize speech, language and hearing disorders.
The American Speech-Language Hearing Association has a helpful list of signs to watch for, as well as where to find an SLP in your area.
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Disclaimer: This post is based on my own personal experiences; I am not a medical professional.