By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
When you gave birth did you lose the power of adult speech? Do you find yourself cooing and ahhing at your baby and saying things like "goo-goo gaa-gaa, who's the liddle-widdle cutie with the icky-bitty toesies?"
Baby talk is common the world over and millions of parents slip into baby babble when spending time with their kids. Baby talk uses sounds and nonsense words to communicate with the little one - and they seem to love it. It may sound annoying to any adults in the room, but is it best for baby? Should you be cooing and gabbling at your baby or is it preferable to speak to him like an adult?
Baby Talk is Bad for Language Development?
Talking baby talk to your baby is, according to many people, the surefire way to hinder your child's language development.
However, there is surprisingly little actual research on whether using invented words and baby-like sounds actually harm learning and development.
On the negative side, when your baby hears only baby talk, she will not be hearing real words and this is essential if she is to learn to speak and be understood.
Speaking solely in baby talk to a baby for three years would probably result in a child who didn't understand any real words, but unsurprisingly this type of research project wouldn't be approved.
Speak Parentese, Not Baby Talk
Research does show that using a special voice and way of speaking with babies is actually beneficial for development.
Called "parentese", moms and dads use real words but they are often repeated and have long drawn-out syllables like "littttttle baybeeeeee" and "where are my shoooooooooes?".
The more exaggerated the speech, the better babies babble in return, and the more words they know by the age of two, according to a 2014 study by the University of Washington and the University of Connecticut.
The slow speech, dramatic emphasis, and different pitches in this speech holds babies and toddlers' attention and also helps to them build vocabulary and learn how to decode a sentence.
Researchers listened to thousands of 30-second extracts of moms and dads speaking to their babies.
The scientists found that exaggerated vowels, a sing-song tone and a raised, happy pitch resulted in babies babbling more in return and was linked to better language development.
It was best when parents spoke to children directly without any other children or adults around. "Parentese is much better at developing language than regular speech, and even better if it occurs in a one-on-one interaction," a researcher said.
The act of making consonants and vowels sound different helps babies understand where one word ends and another begins. Listening to this particular type of baby talk helps babies have an easier time finding words in a sentence.
Use Longer Sentences and Varied Grammar
You don't have to have a college degree to talk to a baby but it may help. A 2014 study from Stanford University shows that babies' language skills improve when you speak to them using proper grammar and in long sentences.
This type of speech introduces context and helps babies draw connections between concepts and words. For example, instead of saying "this is an apple" you say "let's put the apple in the fruit bowl with the oranges and the bananas."
Flashcards and lists of words are not as useful as hearing rich language in context, researchers say. Even if your baby doesn't understand half of what you say, they still benefit from the creative, one-sided conversations.
Try to use varied language, researchers say, with longer sentences, and make connections between things such as "look at the dog. He's much bigger than the little cat and his tail is fluffier." You also need to direct this speech at babies - indirect, overheard speech is not so effective, and TV doesn't count.
Speak Clearly to Help Your Baby's Language Development
A 2015 study from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Tokyo found that mothers actually speak less clearly to their babies than they do to adults, which may result in less effective language development.
The researchers recorded 22 Japanese moms speaking to their babies and to an adult researcher. But whether speaking clearly actually aids or hinders language development is not certain - it would pay to be a little aware about how you speak to your baby, however.
Talking, Talking, Talking…. Any Talk
But whether you are baby talking or telling your child all about your thesis on international development, it's clear that any talking is better than no talking at all. Talking to your baby boosts their brain power and helps them learn more effectively at school. A 2014 study from Stanford University showed that children whose parents spoke to them the least were the children who did the worst in language tests - at 24 months many of them had a developmental delay of six months compared to their contemporaries. This lag stayed with the children for as long as six years.
How to Talk to Your Baby
Talk to your baby from the get-go. Putting children in front of the TV or an iPad is no substitute for chatting to and with your baby. You should center your talk on the child and his interests. But you don't need to sit down and have an in-depth discussion about the state of the world. Talk while you are dressing your child, while you are feeding them - describe how you are putting on socks, or spooning out cereal.
Make sure you give your baby plenty of attention so they feel able to talk back at you even when you are doing something else. When your baby is chatting to you - whether you understand or not - chat back by imitating their sounds, or by giving answers to questions (even when you don't understand the question!) This gives baby the idea that communication is a two-way street. Baby talk and nonsense sounds are fine given that you are also talking using normal words and creative language. The more you talk, the more your baby will talk - and pretty soon you won't be able to get her to stop talking.