Dad swears off ‘baby talk’ for his kids, but is it really bad?

Feb. 10, 2020

For most parents, it’s a miracle when babies start talking. You spend so much time waiting for those first words and hoping you read enough books, sang enough songs and narrated your every move clearly enough to help them get a solid grasp on the basics of language. But one dad on Twitter believes he’s figured out the universal key to early language development, and it’s not what most parents think. Twitter user Adam Lane Smith recently tweeted that his kids are super advanced because he and his wife never use “baby talk.”

In his tweet, Smith says he has only spoken to his children, ages 1 and 3, in full sentences with complex words. He also claims they’ve both picked up on his use of complex vocabulary, and they wow friends and family with their above-average language skills.

While his anecdote is impressive, it also reads like one of those parental humblebrags that makes a lot of other parents roll their eyes. In response to the dad’s claims, many other Twitter users are sharing funny, made-up accomplishments credited to their kids to tease the dad for seeming holier-than-thou.

Some users are also criticizing the father for his ban on baby talk and for pushing unrealistic standards on young kids.

Baby talk is a controversial topic among parents. A quick search of “baby talk with kids” on Google yields a long list of conflicting headlines like “Why Baby Talk Is Good For Babies,” “Baby Talk Is Bad For Babies,” “The Importance of Baby Talk For Babies” and “Why You Shouldn’t Use Baby Talk With Your Children.” You can hardly blame parents for being split on the issue.

Despite the strong opinions on both sides of the debate, the answer to whether or not parents should use baby talk is not as simple as “yes, it’s good” or “no, it’s bad.” It actually may depend on how you define baby talk and how you engage in it.

Most parents think of baby talk as nonsense sounds, like “goo-goo, gah-gah.” But recent findings from the University of Washington show that parents can help boost their kids’ language skills the most by using a slightly more complex form of baby talk called “parentese.”

What is ‘parentese’?

Parentese (also called sometimes called 'motherese' or 'parent-directed speech') is what it’s called when parents speak with real words and correct grammar, but they do it at a higher pitch, a slower tempo and with an exaggerated intonation. The results of a University of Washington study released last week show that when parents are coached in and use parentese regularly with their babies, their babies demonstrate a significant increase in the number of words they can babble by 18 months. Children of parentese-speaking parents produced words at almost twice the rate of children whose parents did not receive coaching on the use of parentese.

Additionally, separate research has shown that babies actually prefer the sound of parentese. The higher pitched vocal sounds grab babies’ attention, which may make them engage more with what is being said. This video by Patricia Kuhl, the co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, shows how a 7-month-old reacts to parentese versus traditional adult speech.

Other ways kids learn language

Of course, there’s more than one way to help kids learn language. For example, reading books is another excellent way to expose babies and young children to language, and that doesn’t usually require any baby talk. One study by the University of Ohio found that kids whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to.

To raise smart babies, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends singing, playing, reading, playing pretend games (in which you take on characters or made-up adventures together) and limiting exposure to screens. Speaking parentese isn’t a requirement but neither is committing to only using SAT vocabulary words with your children. Every child is born with a different capacity for learning, and every parent does things a bit differently, too. It’s important to engage with your baby however you can — and remember, development is not a competition.

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