Baby Talk: We Might Be Doing It Wrong

Talking to your baby boosts language development, but a new study highlights where we're falling short.

Mom Kissing Baby: Baby Language Development Getty Images: Jerome Tisne

There's no question that talking to your baby is extremely important for child development. One landmark study even suggested that intelligence and academic success were directly related to how much a person's parents spoke to them between birth and three years. However, it seems we're still not getting it 100% right.

In a recent study published in Pediatrics, researchers set out to determine variations in verbal communication between parents and their babies based on both the child's gender and the parent's gender. They studied more than 1,500 hours worth of verbal interactions between 33 infants and their moms and dads and examined results at birth, a few weeks later, and then at 7 months.

Here are the surprising results:

  • Moms are way chattier than dads. Moms responded immediately to a child's coos or other vocalizations a whopping 88 to 94 percent of the time, while dads only responded 27 to 30 percent of the time.
  • Moms spoke more to baby girls. Moms with infant daughters talked more to their babies than moms of infant sons did. Researchers don't know why this is the case, but they hypothesize that it might have to do with the fact that infant girls tend to have earlier brain maturation, more eye contact and joint attention (which is the shared focus of two people on the same object) than boys do.
  • Babies respond more to Mom. Both infant boys and girls were more likely to respond to their mothers' voices than their fathers.

Bottom line: Whether you're a mom or a dad or you have a boy or girl, talk to your baby as much as possible. Here, Rebecca Parlakian, director of parenting resources at ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, a national, nonprofit organization that promotes the healthy development of infants and toddlers, offers tips on how to do just that:

  1. Talk to babies in parentese. "Parentese is the high-pitched tone of voice, simple sentences, and stretched our vowels ('Hiiii, Bayyybeeee!') that adults tend to automatically use with young babies," Parlakian says. "Research has found that babies prefer this speech over regular adult speech, possibly because the exaggerated sound production helps them learn the sounds of their home language."
  2. Don't make up words. "While parentese uses actual language and exaggerates it ('Look at the dog!' might become 'Looook! Dogggggy!), nonsense syllables such as 'Goo Goo Ga Ga' don't engage babies in the same way or offer the same language benefits," says Parlakian. "While parents don't have to learn parentese—in fact, we seem to be hard-wired to talk this way to babies—it's good to keep in mind that babies benefit from simple speech."
  3. "Face time" your baby. "Young babies will tend to gaze at your eyes when you talk with them, but beginning at about 4-6 months, they will shift to watching your lips," says Parlakian. "Researchers think this is because babies are learning how to physically produce the sounds of their home language. Right around 12 months—when babies start to speak—they return to making eye contact when you talk." The key is to make sure your baby can see your face when you speak to her.
  4. Start reading time right away. "Early book sharing – even in early infancy – is associated with later language abilities," says Parlakian. "For young infants, choose board books with simple story-lines and high-contrast illustrations. Babies also tend to prefer simple, rhyming language." Goodnight Moon and Green Eggs and Ham are two great options.
  5. Chat about everything and anything. Describe what you see out the window when you're driving, tell her what you're making for lunch, or talk about the basketball game you watched last night. "Babies learn language by hearing it, over and over," Parlakian explains. "By repeating words and concepts over thousands of times, infants begin to develop an understanding of language and begin to say their first words by their first birthday. A strong research base has found that the quantity of language (number of words children hear) and the quality of language (rich, descriptive talk) in the first three years are associated with larger vocabularies at age 4."
  6. Stop talking every once in while. "Make sure to pause when you're talking with your little one to give him a turn to respond," says Parlakian. "Babies begin to engage in back-and-forth interactions as early as 3 months old. This means they begin to wait for pauses in interactions with you in order to respond with babbles, coos, smiles, or even body movements like kicks. Pausing in interactions and looking expectantly at your baby teaches them when it's their 'turn' in the conversation and encourages her to practice producing sounds."