By Talaris Institute
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Researchers call the special way we talk to babies ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’. They have found that infants prefer to hear parentese to grown-up conversation.

Who’s a preeety baaabeee?

Think of the last time you met a baby in the company of an adult. Chances are your conversation went something like this:

  • To baby, in high-pitched voice: ‘Helloooo, sweeeetie. How’s my baaabeee? Ooooh, you’re sooo cute. You are sooooo cuuuuute!’
  • To adult, groaning: ‘What a day. It took me 15 minutes to merge on to the freeway, then another half-hour to make it to work. I was late to the morning staff meeting – again’.
  • To baby, high-pitched: ‘Can you give me a smiiile? Give me a big, big smiiile!’
  • It’s a phenomenon that even the most serious-minded parents can’t explain – see a baby, start cooing.

Researchers call the special way we talk to babies ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’. This sing-song speech, often accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions, seems to be used by nearly everyone who talks to a baby. We all love to do it – mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, even preschoolers addressing younger brothers and sisters. And what’s more, babies seem to like it too.

But does parentese serve a purpose beyond making everyone feel warm and happy? Could the elongated vowels, high pitch, exaggerated facial expressions and short, simple sentences of baby talk help infants learn language?

How babies feel about parentese

We know babies like it. Researchers have found that infants prefer to hear parentese to adult conversation.

To test this, scientists sat babies in infant seats and let them choose to hear tapes of adult-to-adult speech or adult-to-infant speech. When babies turned their heads one way, an eight-second tape of adult conversation played. When they turned their heads the other way, the babies heard parentese. The researchers found that the babies consistently chose to turn their heads to hear the speech directed toward infants. Amazingly, further testing showed this to be true even when the parentese was in a foreign language.

Babies, quite simply, enjoy hearing the higher-pitched sounds and exaggerated speech patterns of parentese – even when they don’t know what the words mean. Babies not only enjoy the sounds we make when we do it – they also enjoy watching our faces as we talk to them.

In fact, researchers have found that babies as young as five months old are capable of some simple lip-reading.

In this test, babies were first shown a silent video of a face forming the sounds ‘ahhh’ or ‘eeee’. Then they heard audiotapes of one of the sounds. The babies knew which face matched which sound. Babies hearing the ‘ahhh’ sound looked at the video with the wide-open mouth, while those that heard ‘eeee’ looked at the video with the grinning mouth.

How parentese works

Researchers are just beginning to look at the possible benefits of parentese. But it’s well established that most of us use it, regardless of our culture or native tongue.

Various studies have documented parentese in speakers of English, German, Russian and Swedish. And one study found it among speakers of Mandarin Chinese, a tonal language in which, unlike English or German, a change in the pitch of a word alters the meaning of that word.

But no matter the language, parentese seems to share several characteristics and, scientists theorise, has several purposes:

  • Parentese is higher-pitched, sometimes as much as an octave higher. Why do we all seem to become sopranos when we talk to babies? It might serve to get their attention. After all, if we’re getting high and squeaky, we’re probably not addressing anybody with more authority, or even more height, than we have.
  • Parentese uses short and simple sentences, often repeated over and over again. We’ve all said it, probably multiple times, ‘Who’s a sweet baby? Are you a sweet baby? Yes, you’re a sweet, sweet baby’. Repeating ourselves can help babies figure out words, and simple, repeated sentences can help them with grammar.
  • Parentese features well-formed, elongated consonants and vowels. We tend to pronounce words precisely when we talk to babies – pulling out the vowel sounds and clearly voicing consonants – in marked contrast to the hurried way we speak to other adults. A slurred ‘sweebabe’ becomes a bright ‘sweeet baaabeee’ when addressed to someone who truly fits the description. Hearing the exaggerated sounds of parentese can make it easier for infants to learn the sounds of their own language.
Research in this area provides the clearest indication so far that babies use parentese to help solve the mystery of language.

Helpful parenting tips

That’s easy. Use parentese. And don’t be embarrassed about it for a second. Across the world, adults love baby talk. Babies love baby talk. It’s delightful to move in close to a child and communicate in a warm, friendly way that’s sure to get a smile. And the slow, higher-pitched, sing-song speech might be just what an infant needs to hear to help figure out how language is put together.

  • Talk to your baby as you go through the day. Even if young children don’t understand what your words mean, they love to hear the sounds of language. And don’t be shy about smiling and making goo-goo eyes while you talk!
  • Move in close when talking to your child. This way your baby can see your face and your lips move when you talk. 
  • Draw out your vowels and pitch your voice as high as you like. Praise his pretty brown eyes. Tell her she’s a sweetie. Say it as if you have a big smile.
  • Remember that you’re talking to a baby, not a mini-adult.
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  • Fernald, A. & Kuhl, P. (1987). Acoustic determinants of infant preference for parentese speech. Infant Behavior and Development 10, 279-293.

    Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. N., & Kuhl, P. K. (1999). The scientist in the crib: what early learning tells us about the mind. New York: HarperCollins.

    Grieser, D. L. & Kuhl, P. K. (1988). Maternal speech to infants in a tonal language: support for universal prosodic features in parentese. Developmental Psychology, 24, 14-20.

    Kuhl, P. K. & Meltzoff, A. N. (1982). The bimodal perception of speech in infancy. Science, 218, 1138-1141.

    Kuhl, P. K., Andruski, J. E., Chistovich, I. A. et al. (1997). Cross-language analysis of phonetic units in language addressed to infants. Science, 277, 684-686.