Baby Talk, Baby Sign, Motherese?


Thanks to all of you who have submitted questions via e-mail regarding your child’s speech, hearing, and language development. I’ve been sorting through the 60+ questions and have tried to compile the most frequently asked questions. Let’s start with this one.

Question from Maria in Utah: “I talk to my baby all the time. My husband teases me about it and says she doesn’t understand. She’s only 3 weeks old, but I still think it’s only natural for a mother to talk to her baby. Who is right?”

Hi Maria,

You weren’t the only one who wrote about this. Some people wanted to know if it’s a good idea to use baby sign, others wanted to know if it’s okay to talk “baby talk” with their infants. One mother asked if she was wrong to try to teach her baby words at six weeks of age.

Here’s what we know about speech and language development. From the time a baby is born (I believe it happens in the womb, as well), children are listening to the sounds in their environment. They slowly start to experiment with their vocalizations, starting with cooing sounds in the first few months of life. Then, by about six months of age, they start to put sounds together (babbling). That’s when parents beam because the baby said, “Dada” or “Mama” (which is why these early sound combinations have evolved to represent the names for parents.)

Babbling soon turns into jargon, where long combinations of sounds are strung together to imitate the complex patterns of speech — but they are still nonsense words being used as vocal experiments as the baby learns to control his/her vocal mechanisms. By the time the baby turns one, s/he usually has mastered a few simple words of the primary language. As adults respond to those “words,” meaning is attached, and their vocabulary expands. Most early words involve the simplest sounds to articulate, such as baba (bottle), ba (ball), or mo (more), but as the vocal mechanisms develop, more sounds are mastered.

There is definitely a critical stage of language development from birth to three years of age. During these wonder years (and beyond), parents should provide as much language stimulation as possible for their children. Children learn to process and produce language by imitation and experimentation, so yes, Maria, talk, talk, talk to that baby and keep the lines of communication open. Read, sing, converse. Your child is processing much more than your husband may realize.

When it comes to baby talk (for those who wrote in from New Hampshire, Louisiana, and Idaho)…mothers all around the world use exaggerated “motherese” when talking to their babies. I happen to believe there is a natural/instinctual reason for this, and I think it’s perfectly normal, if not necessary, to help our children learn the sounds of their primary language.

Children are actually born with the ability to use all the sounds of human language, and as they hear their own language, they slowly reduce their sound repertoire of articulatory targets to match their mother tongue. So yes, talk, sing, make silly sounds, exaggerate your highs and lows and round those vowels to extremes – it’s all good stimulation for your baby’s communication system and it’s also a heck of a lot of fun.

As for baby sign (too many of you to list here), you’ll find speech-language pathologists on both sides of the fence with that one. I happen to believe any form of meaningful communication is helpful, and if baby sign allows your baby to communicate intent and desires before his/her vocal mechanisms are developed, then that’s a wonderful way to build stronger bonds and encourage communication. I have seen many young children use baby sign effectively, and I believe it works. However, I do encourage parents to always attach a spoken word with the sign so that children learn to use the spoken words rather than depend on gestures to communicate as they mature. And….as your child’s speech ability increases, try to require spoken requests rather than manual ones.

Please note, if your child is hearing impaired, you may find your child’s therapists reluctant to incorporate manual communication in his/her therapy program. An oral-only approach is widely used and all options should be discussed with your child’s intervention team.

Keep those questions coming, and I’ll do my best to answer as many as possible. If you suspect your child may have speech or language delays, or difficulty hearing, please contact your pediatrician or a certified speech/language pathologist as soon as possible. Remember, children learn most of their communication skills before the age of three years, and early intervention is critical.



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