Let’s assume you are going back to work after maternity leave. Going back is tough. You’ve spent the past weeks and months, if you’re lucky, getting to know and adore this new little scrap of humanity that has changed your lives forever. So we’re guessing you feel the tiniest bit guilty.
We’ve been there, too, and are happy to say that a simple thing that most of us do instinctively with our babies can make all the difference in the bond you and your baby share. It’s part of your DNA and something that you as parents can consciously cultivate and even practice strategically.
The more you do, the more your baby’s adjustment to the new situation can be eased and you can rest assured that you are doing everything you can to strengthen the bond between you and your child.
It’s called Motherese (a.k.a. plain old Baby Talk). And in case you might think this could lead to the dumbing down of your child, think again!
What is Motherese?
Better yet, let’s call it Parentese because as you might expect, Motherese isn’t just limited to the mother. It includes Dad, grand parents, and anyone caregiving or interacting with your child up to around two years of age.
In research, it’s referred to as Infant-Directed Speech or IDS and it’s the interactive give and take between mother and child common to mothers and babies around the world. It’s the initial goo-goo, ga-ga that starts when your baby’s born right on through to Itsy Bitsy Spider when they’re toddlers.
This spontaneous mother-baby communication is critical to the child’s emotional, social and language development. And it’s not only verbal – it involves hand gestures, facial expressions, engaging baby’s eyes/attention and the pitch of your voice.
You catch yourself doing everything you can from sing-song babbling like a fool to making goofy faces in an effort to make baby smile, giggle and coo. You are communicating because both of you are engaged. Think about it - you’re looking for a response and the way your child responds leads you to match your response to your child’s and so it progresses in an interactive loop step by step.
The first three months it’s all about comforting and then from 3-6 months it’s about expressing affection and approval. The effectiveness of Parentese peaks around 6 months when it becomes more directive – look at Daddy, isn’t Daddy cuuuute? – up to about 2 years of age.
For parents who feel silly talking baby talk, you don’t have to do it all the time. As baby gets older, you’ll probably progress to a more adult way of speaking once you have baby’s attention and his or her learning and understanding progresses. The point is you are learning from each other and you both have to be comfortable with your interaction.
5 Good Reasons to Baby Talk to Your Child
It’s as important to your child’s development as diapers and mother’s milk.
- Infants actually prefer Parentese. You can mix adult speech and baby talk, but studies show that if you start speaking with baby talk to engage attention, they will then pay attention to adult speech as part of the “conversation,” but rarely the other way around.
- It encourages babys’ attention as you engage eye contact and prompts babies to coo, smile, wiggle and make noises. They are “talking back” to you and clearly show whether they accept or reject the way you are communicating with them.
- It helps in language acquisition as your baby or toddler responds and learns to process the differences in speech, such as how a sentence or phrase is formed and how words are formed. They are able to recall words more effectively than babies who only hear adult directed speech.
- It encourages social interaction with others who practice Motherese with your child since a baby will respond to it more readily than to adult-directed speech.
- You are practicing positive, loving touch. Whether stroking, patting or just holding your child on your lap as you talk, you are physically connected to your baby and your mutual exchange of energy has a positive effect on both of you.
Lets take Pat-a-Cake. Think about everything you do in addition to saying the rhyme itself. You’re holding baby’s hands, making the patting movements, drawing the “b” and in our case even throwing it in the air for baby and me!
Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man.
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Pat it and shape it and mark it with "B",
And bake it in the oven for baby and me
100 to one odds are that when you say it to your baby, you don’t do it in the same tone of voice that you would to another adult. You pitch your voice higher, emphasize each consonant and include pauses between them. Think of the repetition of vowels “a” and “e” and the consonants, especially “b”.
Research has found that that Motherese or Infant-directed Speech has the following characteristics:
- A large number of questions
- Repetitive words and phrases
- Frequent use of proper names
- Infusing communication with emotion
- Drawn out vowels
And as far as rhythm and rhyming is concerned, the tempo is slower, the voice is pitched higher and rhyming tends to be more repetitive according to what the mother wants to convey.
Interestingly, these same speech characteristics exist across various languages, although with expected linguistic and cultural variations for both mothers and fathers.
So, bring on as much Motherese/Parentese during the time you ARE together as you can – one on one – and you will help further your child’s cognitive, emotional and social development. That goes for Dad, too!
Whether changing diapers or cooking dinner, keep baby close by…those moments of connection are precious and meaningful for you both.
It also means putting down your devices and paying attention to this new human. It’s the quantity of undivided attention, as well as the quality, that can make such a difference.
And there’s plenty of evidence to back that up!
 Motherese in Interaction: At the Cross-Road of Emotion and Cognition? (A Systematic Review)
Catherine Saint-Georges,1,2 Mohamed Chetouani,2 Raquel Cassel,1,3 Fabio Apicella,4 Ammar Mahdhaoui,2 Filippo Muratori,4 Marie-Christine Laznik,5 and David Cohen1,2,*
 Singh, L., Nestor, S., Parikh, C. and Yull, A. (2009), Influences of Infant-Directed Speech on Early Word Recognition. Infancy, 14: 654–666. doi: 10.1080/15250000903263973
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