The SCIENCE Behind *Annoying* Baby Talk Singsong Voices!

At least once a night, after my daughter has gone to sleep, one of her talking toys comes to life on its own and pipes up with some stupid phrase from the bottom of the toy basket. It’s pretty creepy but I’ve grown accustomed to it, and I’m sure there’s a reasonable, non-ghost explanation as to what hairpin triggers these toys to go off.

Last night, I heard her anthropomorphic picnic basket cut my peace and quiet to tell me “an ORANGE is orange!” Well no kidding. It wasn’t the stupidly obvious statement that bugged me, but the way that he (or she?) said it. In that singsong, saccharin fake voice that seems to infest all of my daughter’s toys. I loathe that voice. It’s just so damn phony… But I started thinking that there has to be a scientific reason behind that voice. Most grownups I know talk to children in a version of that voice. Preschool teachers and nannies seem to ramp it up to the next level. And talking toys ramp it up even further to the octave of “audible torture for non mombies.”

Of course being the nerd that I am, I decided to do some research  rather than shrugging the thought off like a normal person would. Here are the findings of my research:

The Big Study

So it turns out that we all switch to this voice when talking to babies and toddlers because it’s nature’s way of holding their attention. According to a study published in Current Biology, as referenced in Smithsonian Magazine, there are universal changes in vocal timbre when talking to babies. The study recorded the infant-directed speech (IDS) that English speaking mothers used when conversing with their offspring. Researchers then converted the recordings into “vocal footprints.” They used a computer algorithm to compare adult speech with IDS and identified the common change in cadence that mothers adopt. Furthermore, they brought in twelve additional mothers speaking nine different languages (Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, German, French, and Hebrew) and the algorithm picked up the same changes in speech patterns with each of these mothers.

The study shows that IDS exaggerates the difference between vowel sounds, which makes it easier for babies to learn words. IDS also has a “widespread expression of emotion to infants in comparison with the more inhibited expression of emotion in typical adult interactions.”

This article from CNN also references the study and further states that besides helping with language acquisition, baby talk also fosters emotional bonds between parents and children. Infants prefer high-pitched speech and even infant-directed singing (like “The Wheels on the Bus”) and research suggests that infants might prefer baby talk because it causes adults to sound smaller. Additionally, we shift our voices in all sorts of contexts to sound more like the person we are speaking to at the time. It’s a form of verbal affirmation that we instinctively take on when talking with someone we really like. So naturally, we are going to shift our voices when talking to babies and children.

Helping our Babies and Toddlers Learn Language

Dr. Catherine Lainge of Duke University wrote this interesting article which gets into some of the tips she’s learned while studying early language development. She reminds us that even before a baby is born, they are listening to their mother from inside the womb, and developing a preference for their mother’s voice above all others. (She compares it to listening to someone underwater in a swimming pool. You can’t make out individual words, but you can hear tone and rhythm.)

Besides reiterating the importance of using that high-pitched baby talk, Dr. Lainge advises that we speak at a slower rate to give infants more time to process words while placing important words at the end of the sentence.  The example she gives is: “Can you see the doggie?!” as opposed to, “The doggie is eating the bone.” (When trying to teach the word “doggie”)

She also advises that words used in isolation are easier for babies to learn than words that are part of a streaming sentence. This is why a word like “Bye Bye!” is often the first word a child will pick up and start saying. Additionally, repetition is key. Babies will learn the words we speak most often. Words like “bottle,” “mommy,” and “baby.” Repeating certain words will help the baby pull those words out of the sentence and identify them.

Overall, it’s important to remember that for babies, listening to their own language is similar to an adult listing to a foreign language — It all kind of runs together! We need to help them differentiate and identify words, and this is where the baby talk and sentence structuring comes into play.  

So I guess my daughter’s annoying toys are serving a purpose with their exaggerated swinging speech patterns, and there was some actual research that went into that talking picnic basket. I always assumed language was something our children picked up effortlessly through immersion, but it turns out that there are plenty of strategies we can use to help them along in the earlier stages. Here are some additional tips from the Child Mind Institute on encouraging communication in children ages 0-5.

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