Are you guilty of this? Most people who have interacted with a baby at some point have fallen into the trap of using a sing-song voice and cutesy “wittle” words. There is something hypnotic about snuggling a sweet baby that just opens wide the floodgates of made-up words in a high-pitched tone from the adult. While traditional baby talk may seem annoying and counterproductive, new research from the University of Washington shows that a form of baby talk, “parentese,” actually has positive impacts on infant language development. In the research, using real words, exaggerating vowels and speaking to babies in a sing-song voice caused infants to turn their heads and babble back to their parents.
According to the study, the more parents exaggerated their vowels and raised the pitch of their voice, the more the 1-year-old babies would babble. Additionally, speaking one-on-one with babies during everyday activities, such as changing a diaper, had a more positive result for language development.
Lexi Guarino, early childhood speech pathologist, cautions parents from relying solely on parentese in conversations with their children. “Parentese is great to draw the child's attention to what you're saying, but I would caution parents on only using words that way,” she says. “It's important for children to hear the correct pronunciations as well.”
So what are the most important areas to focus on when talking with our babies? Guarino identifies three things she urges parents to consider as they communicate with their children. The first is to really focus on labeling items being used throughout the day and to be repetitive in that labeling. “Use the word several times during the interaction and by itself, as well as in sentences. For example: ‘You have peas! Yummy peas! Peas, peas, peas.’ It can be fun and silly because that's what engages young children,” Guarino says.
Secondly, she encourages using a wide variety of word types, beginning with nouns, as they are easiest for a child to learn by connecting an object to the word, such as a pet’s name. Once children have incorporated nouns into their vocabulary, begin working on verbs and feeling words. Guarino stresses the importance that learning language should be fun, interactive and incorporated into play. “Demonstrating ‘stop’ and ‘go’ with a car or ball works great! Or ‘up’ and ‘down’ while picking the child up and putting him down. After mastering a few verbs, little ones will be ready for some parental encouragement to combine words. Two-word sentences begin to emerge around 2 years, but with a little support they could come much more easily to a child.”
Third, Guarino cautions parents against making communication too easy for their children, especially if there is an older sibling in the home. She encourages parents to give tots the opportunity to communicate rather than anticipating their every need. “By waiting a little bit and letting the child come to you, you're allowing him the chance to practice words. And at first, they won't know what to say, but that's where the modeling comes in,” Guarino says. “Child brings you the empty cup, and you can say ‘You need a drink!’ Take him to the fridge and pull out the milk or juice and label it for him while you're pouring. ‘Here's your milk. Milk in your cup.’"
If you have concerns with your child’s language development, resources are available to help you assess language development in these early years. In Kansas, you can contact Infant Toddler Services (www.KSITS.org) for children under the age of 3 to schedule an evaluation to determine whether your child meets criteria for having in-home services.
Bottom line, the most important factor is to talk with your baby. Eye-to-eye and with a smile on your face, use real words, raise your pitch and stretch those vowel sounds. By capitalizing on both parentese methods and suggestions from Guarino, you can enjoy the process of communicating with your baby. Just promise to save the baby talk for your baby and not ask your spouse where he left the “keeeeyyss” or if she is ready to go to the “stooooore.”
Rachel Boese spends her days trying to communicate with three little ones in her home. She lives in Gardner with her husband and keeps a personal blog at www.RachelOnRewind.com.