Coochie, coochie coo! The natural benefits of baby talk
It’s hard not to do it. When we meet babies and children (and sometimes even pets), our usual manner of speaking is altered. We don’t use the same tones we use when we communicate with other adults but instead we elongate our vowels and vary our tone and pitch. We slow down, pronounce our words carefully and take time to pause. We repeat things.
There are several names for this: ‘baby talk’, 'motherese’ or ‘infant directed speech’. And although you might feel funny and friends and family might laugh as you converse with an infant, we do this without thinking and without explicit intention of speaking like this. Men, women and children use infant directed speech (IDS) naturally when speaking to an infant or toddler. Older children use IDS when speaking to younger children.
So if this is something that adults are likely to do naturally, it is important to consider how and why. Adults who do not have children, or have little experience with children, naturally adopt IDS and use it with almost the same proficiency as mothers.
Adults have learned to talk like this because children are very sensitive to tone and pitch. Long before a child has learned the meaning of the word, they’re hearing and learning the differences in melody. This is more interesting to them than facial expressions. Changes in vocal tone excite and interest infants and small children. It is often easier to deduce meaning from tone than just from the words alone.
Human infants have a strong interest and sensitivity to the elements of IDS – tone, pitch, melody, tempo and rhythm. The musical characteristics of IDS engage children and foster language development.
Language is a form of music. The way we speak has musical qualities that we exaggerate when speaking with children and babies. They love this. It engages them, excites them and keeps them interested. So the next time you find yourself cooing and talking in a cutesy voice with a child, you can pat yourself on the back. That is exactly what they want to hear.