Baby Talk: Enriching your child’s language development

By Olivia K Pitkethly, MA, LMHC

There’s something about babies that brings out this unfamiliar voice and vocabulary. Suddenly, we’re speaking in a higher pitch and making up words like “boogly googly” and “nosey wosey.” But how is this affecting our babies’ language development?

Brandee Charles, a speech-language pathologist who works with preschool and elementary-age children, said this type of talk is captivating to a baby. Baby talk, also called “motherese,” involves more dramatic facial expressions, prolonged vowel sounds, simplified grammar and higher pitches in the parents’ speech.

“Babies go through the very exciting stage of babbling between 4–6 months and this is a critical part of their development,” said Charles. “The pattern of motherese supports this stage as it promotes interaction and communication because it is so highly engaging with the baby.”

Charles noted that physically interacting with your baby is also beneficial to language development. “Providing them with tummy time builds balance and strength, and having a parent on the floor with them face-to-face builds emotional bonds and opportunities for communication,” she said.

Babies absorb information by watching facial expressions and mouth movements, and will try to imitate what they see. Playing peek-a-boo or talking to your baby while she’s on the changing table can also serve as important building blocks toward communication.

Avoiding screen time, for both parents and babies, may also be best for boosting language skills. Research from the University of North Carolina shows that babies prefer the sound of a mother’s voice over any other voice, while other studies from the US, Switzerland, Taiwan and Scotland indicate babies prefer positive face-to-face interactions for visual stimulation versus any other stimulus. With these studies in mind, it seems that babies learn best by imitating their mothers’ facial expressions and mouth movements instead of mimicking what they see on screens.

“Babies are hardwired to tune in to their parents, and parents best serve their children when they are available and responsive,” said Charles. “The biggest gift we can give to our children is our undivided time.”

By the time your child turns 3, he will have outgrown the “motherese” speech pattern. I miss the days of hearing my son say “ammit” for elephant, but promoting clear speech is important for children. “We don’t want to forget all the sweet little speech patterns our babies use, but we also don’t want to hold them back from their potential to mature in their production of words and speech sounds at the appropriate age,” said Charles.

Tip from Brandee:

If you don’t want to forget all of the cute things your baby used to say, videotape your child saying some of your favorites so you can revisit them while encouraging appropriate speech patterns!