No Baby Talk?

Parents, especially new parents, spend a lot of time worrying about their child meeting certain milestones while they try to enjoy infancy and childhood. Speech milestones are a big deal and because of this, there is plenty of professional discourse about the way we speak to children. The topic that’s always on the chopping block? Whether or not baby talk is harmful to speech development.


Dr. Vicky Roy, a speech pathologist and the owner of Dynamic Therapy Specialists, helped us sort through the science of language learning and how baby talk can affect your child’s speech development.


Don’t Get It Twisted

There are two types of “baby talk.” The first kind is the one that’s beneficial, called parentese or motherese, when we talk to babies in a singsong, lilting voice, accentuating vowels, and really focusing on pronunciation. It’s attractive to babies and helps grab their attention, but why is that?


“When you talk that way in this kind of up and down volume or increasing and decreasing kind of way, that’s going to stimulate the muscles in the ears to the point where they’re going to push on the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the human body with the purpose of recognizing the feeling of safety and engagement. So, that stimulation calms and soothes them,” explains Dr. Roy.


The second type of baby talk is the nonsensical type. Often, it starts with words that your child says incorrectly that you begin to mimic. Infantilizing speech and words can be harmful to speech development after a certain age.


“Kids go through this natural process of making speech easier until they can produce speech correctly. The problem with adults mimicking it is that children learn their language system through imitation, so we don’t produce words that we’ve never heard before. If we are saying a word incorrectly, the system has incorrect inputs, so we should expect it not to facilitate proper language development,” says Dr. Roy.


Prevention is Awareness – Promote Good Speaking Habits!

When it comes to your child’s speaking abilities, you’re going to notice when something is wrong. Consciously or unconsciously, you will start comparing your child to other children their age. If you notice delays in speech, strange speech patterns, or are just generally concerned, it’s time to seek help. Most clinics offer free screenings, and schools occasionally host them as well.


“As early as six months old, if your child is not visually checking in and engaging with you by smiling and starting to make sounds, then I would be concerned about that. By the age of one, they should have some good words that you know what they’re meaning to say and are consistent. The number of words like that should be increasing exponentially every six months,” says Dr. Roy.


For the most part, the language learning process is infallible. Children are going to learn proper language skills through experience in daycare or school, but language learning does begin with you. Take initiative and dive into learning with your child by modeling speech every day.


“If your child is struggling, it is advised that you not speak to them in a way that you don’t want them to imitate. So, if they say something cute but incorrect, then you can say it back to them correctly. By the age of two or sooner, you want to be modeling correct, adult-sounding words,” shares Dr. Roy.


There are plenty of things you can do to help your child develop their language skills. One good option is to read to them. Bedtime stories are not just a tool to wind down in the evening. Since they are listening to you read, they are learning how to pronounce new words as they follow along. Secondly, use the environment around you to your advantage. In the car or on walks, start pointing out objects and landmarks. Explain what they are and model the name of each object, place, or landmark.


The Verdict Is In

All-in-all, cutesy baby talk is harmless to an extent. Much of a child’s development hinges on us being able to provide the foundation for good, healthy learning. It is our job as parents to facilitate good speech practices by giving our children examples to live by. Enriching their lives with conversation, listening, and engagement is something we can easily do every day using the world around us.