Get within six feet of a small child, and most people can feel it welling up from within: those coos. That annoying singsong lilt. The exaggerated vowels and repetitive sounds. Across cultures, baby talk is almost impossible to avoid. But is it actually helping babies and young toddlers learn to speak? It turns out, yes.
Not only does the slow, exaggerated sound of “parentese” hold the attention of toddlers, but it also gives them clues on how to decode a sentence, build a vocabulary and more. There is a caveat, however: words like “num-num” and “ittle-widdle” aren’t known to help much at all.
Katherine White, a professor of developmental psychology, studies those early stages of language at the Lab for Infant Development and Language at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. She says parentese is found in almost all languages—even sign language—but the impetus seems to be less about teaching speech than simply holding a baby’s attention. “Babies like to listen to the singsong quality of parentese, even if adults find it annoying,” White says.
Making consonants and vowels clearer helps babies hear the difference between them. By the age of two, that can translate into a vocabulary that’s bigger than that of kids whose moms and dads don’t use this technique. “For very young babies, listening to their own language is similar to an adult listening to a foreign language—it’s very hard to tell where one word ends and the next one begins,” White says. “When babies listen to parentese, they have an easier time finding the words.”
It’s not just the type of speech that matters. An April 2014 study by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Connecticut found that one-on-one conversations using baby talk led to better language development. The more exaggerated the speech (“Where are your shoooes?”) and the more variance in voice pitch, the more the one-year-olds would babble, both in response and in general. By the age of two, babies who had experienced more of this chatter knew more words.
Even a “conversation” made up of pure baby-babble can be a helpful learning moment—your toddler will start to learn the give-and-take of conversation. As a parent, this is heartening news. With twin one-year-old girls on my hands, I spend more time than I’d like to admit babbling at the upper ranges of my vocal register, or roaming the house shouting nonsense words and hearing two happy replies (which also acts as a handy echolocation tool).
Yes, I quite like parentese. It’s lyrical and silly and it makes my babies smile. What I can’t stand are those fake terms adults adopt, like “soosie” and “sippie,” and many other parents agree with me. The jury is out on whether these invented words help or hinder in language development. “There is surprisingly little research on that,” White says. On the plus side, they often end in a “y” sound, making them easier to differentiate. But they also can slow learning down, because the child needs to learn the real word, too.
Toddlers often invent their own (adorable) versions of words. Don’t feel pressure to correct them, White says. “When they’re ready, they’ll switch over to the real word.” What matters most is that they learn how words work.
So if parentese is second nature, keep it up. If those lilting tones bother you, don’t force it. And if you find yourself in full singsong mode in the checkout line, rest easy. The pitch changes and exaggerations are natural. “It would be hard for us to consciously control some of these modifications, even if we wanted to,” says White.
[Update]: New research on babies and language development in the journal Pediatrics suggests dads may need to speak up. The study found that mothers chat with their infants more than fathers do from birth to seven months, and that those infants were also more likely to respond to their moms' voices. Another interesting fact: Moms in the study tended to respond more frequently to their infant girls' babble. The takeaway: All babies benefit from exposure to conversation and should hear from both parents as much as possible.
BONUS TIP: A Stanford University study has shown that speaking in longer, more varied sentences can also help boost your baby’s language skills. Use proper grammar and try to have full-sentence conversations, even if you know your tot does not understand all of it—it teaches context and helps babies draw connections between words and concepts.