Baby Talk: How to Talk and Not to Talk to Your Baby

From thinking about your baby’s physical health—how much they’re eating, sleeping, and growing, for instance—to their intellectual development, it can seem as though parents have a lot to consider. If you are concerned specifically about language development, this blog post is for you. Here, we will discuss how to talk to your baby to best set them up for success. The good news is that you probably are already doing a great job, and there are always new things that are easy to try to help your baby become as chatty as you want them to be.

What is baby talk?

Baby talk, also known as “motherese,” “parentese,” or “infant-directed speech,” is the natural cadence that adults and older children tend to slip into when speaking to babies. It tends to involve higher pitched voices, simpler phrasing, and over-enunciated words. Many people automatically adopt this way of speaking to babies, regardless of the language they are speaking. And research has shown that most babies prefer to listen to someone speaking in this way and are better at discerning different words when listening to infant-directed speech.

How should I talk to my baby?

Talk to your baby even before they are born and definitely from birth. For babies younger than about six months, using infant-directed speech is a great idea (and you are probably doing it already). Enunciate clearly, and don’t be afraid to use a singsong voice.

In addition to using parentese, you should speak to your baby often, as research has also shown the benefits to babies of hearing more language. Not sure what to talk to your baby about? Here are some ideas:

  • Describe for your baby what they are experiencing: sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and what they’re touching. For instance, “Do you feel the kitty’s soft fur?” “That strawberry tastes sweet.”
  • Talk about actions that you or baby are taking; use action words, as in “I’m reaching up high to get the scissors” or “You are stretching out far to get the ball.”
  • Tell baby about the caregiving activities you are doing for them. Describe diaper changes and baths and how things work during feeding times. This will help baby learn body words and be the beginning of discussions around consent.
  • Use grammar correctly.
  • Teach baby nouns by talking about everyday objects—in your home or outside it—as you go about your normal routine.
  • Use pronouns, synonyms (words that mean the same thing but sound different), and prepositions.
  • Read to your baby. This activity is one of the most important ways that you can expand your child’s experience of language. If you just read one book per day, your child will have heard more than 1000 books by age three!
  • Sing to your baby; melodies and song lyrics may engage babies with language in a similar way to parentese.

How should I not talk to my baby?

Importantly, don’t just talk at your baby, make an effort to listen to them, too. Babies can be pretty good communicators, even before you might think and long before they can say actual words. By pausing after things that you say to baby, making eye contact, and listening for anything they might like to contribute, you help them feel valued and connect with them. It won’t be long before baby might make sounds in response to things you say to them, which will eventually lead to words.

If you speak more than one language in the home, which can be great for babies, keep it to three languages or fewer. And if you can, try to separate the languages by which adults speak them. Sometimes babies who consistently hear more than one language take a little longer to speak consistently, but when they do, they’ll likely have grasped each language quite well.

Try to talk to your baby one-on-one at least some of the time. While babies are constantly watching and taking language in, they benefit most from focused attention from you, their caregiver. In a noisy place or a setting with lots of distractions, the benefits of talking to your baby will be less than in a quiet room, where you can really settle in and converse with your child.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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