Talking with Your Baby -- Techniques, Tricks and Tips

by Bette G. Rinehart

Talking With BabyLast year, New York Pediatric Profession, Alan Mendelsohn began a program for helping low-income moms learn to talk to their babies like more affluent moms.

An earlier study by Hart and Risley looked at babies and toddlers raised in a home with professional parents and those raised in welfare homes.

On the average, the kids from professional homes were talked to more often hearing 2100 words per hour, while the other children heard only 600.

Risley and hart estimated that by the age of 4, children of professional parents heart on average 48 million words; children in the poor families heard only 13 million.

To close the gap, programs have cropped up around the country to teach parents how to talk with babies. Some programs intervene at the moment of birth.

The most successful of these programs involves video coaching. Each time the poor mothers go to the pediatrician, they're videotaped paying with their babies and then advised how to improve.

In a sample Alan Mendelsohn showed on NPR, a mother and her 2-month-old were given a mirror to play with. The mother held the mirror for the baby, but didn't say much.

After making such a video, the child development specialist shows it to the mother and suggests ways she might behave differently. She can use the mirror to talk about reflections or the baby's eyes and hair.

Mendelsohn says that these micro-behaviors add up to macro-differences.

"Mothers had roughly a doubling in the amount of certain kinds of labeling activities," he continued, "...and a 50 percent increase in the degree to which they reported that they talked about events in the child's life and what was going on in the child's surroundings," Mendelsohn concluded.

Another positive change as a result of the study was that the mothers read more to the babies and showed them less TV.

Talking with Babies

Long before your baby says that first word, they understand your basic message and absorb your emotional tone. Encourage your baby's coos, gurgles and early attempt at communicating with you.

• Make time for baby chat. Even when you're busy with tasks, take a few minutes so your baby can "talk" with you.

• Smile and look at your baby when you hear cooing and vocalization, instead of looking away, interrupting or talking with someone else.

• Be patient with yourself. It can take a while to decode your baby's signals. Eventually those noises and facial expression with obviously tell you that your baby's frustrated, joyful, tired or bored.

It's a two-way street. From the very beginning you can imitate and respond to your baby.

• Have back and forth conversations. Leave a pause for baby's response just like you would leave a pause when talking with your best friend.

• Imitate your baby's sounds. You're not making fun; you're showing your child how those sounds look.

• Smile and mirror your baby's expression. Use gestures and expressions that match your words. The baby might try to mimic those!

Talking the Talk: What Is Baby Talk?

Have you ever noticed how you talk to a baby? You probably used a high-pitched, singsong speech that had you looking over your shoulder to make sure nobody overheard you.

That odd way of talking helps babies learn language. It's been nicknamed "motherese" but dads and even children use it to talk with babies. A better name might be child-directed speech or simply "baby talk."

We make changes in our language when we talk with infants, foreign-language speakers, and even pets and plants. Around the world, people tend to change the way they speak when talking with a baby. Even a 4-year-old will use a squeaky, exaggerated voice when talking with a baby sibling.

Baby talk differs from the speech we use with other adults. We might say "Gooooooood moooooorrrning!" to the baby. To another adult we'd just say "Good morning" or even "g'mornin'." We tend to lengthen the vowel pattern and exaggerate the pitch swings.

Those aren't the only changes. Baby talk also makes other adaptations that signal your words are just for the language learner.

  • You shorten the sentences
  • You put longer, clearer pauses between phrases
  • You unconsciously put words you think might be unfamiliar at the end of the sentence where they receive more emphasis
  • You incorporate more emotion into your messages

Does it make a difference if baby talk is used with infants? Does it retard their language development?

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University says that the opposite is true. Baby talk helps your tiny learner discriminate between sounds and words. It helps them figure out how the vowels in their language work. Baby talk allows your baby to pick out patterns in our confusing adult conversations.

Go ahead! Raise your voice, shorten those sentences and make faces as you talk with your baby. Research from laboratories suggest that infant-directed speech gives your infant and toddler a boost as they learn language.

Do you talk with your baby differently from the rest of the family? Share your stories!