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Does “mother-ese” help or hurt verbal development?

Every parent does it eventually. One minute, you’re holding up your end of an impassioned debate about border control. The next moment, a baby enters the room and your Ivy League education is reduced to monosyllabic baby talk as you try to cajole a response from Baby.

Mom with baby

But can “mother-ese” be too much of a good thing?

“Mother-ese” may be a new term, but chances are, you’ve heard of “baby talk.” What prompts us to use it? Does it actually help our children learn to speak sooner?

Julie Kouzel, MS, CCC-SLP is a speech/language pathologist with more than 20 years’ experience working with infants and young children with oral-motor, feeding and communication difficulties in various settings (e.g., home, clinics, schools). She is in private practice at Speech Discovery for Kids in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Kouzel says mother-ese is beneficial with infants and babies, until about the 9- to 15-month mark. “After that, you start to deprive your child of a rich vocabulary, which includes grammatically correct phrases and sentences, proper inflection and pausing spaces and conversational markers.”

Relax, baby-talk novices

Before your head explodes and you recount in horror the careful analysis you shared with Baby just this morning on whether Savannah Guthrie is funnier than Matt Lauer — without using a syllable of mother-ese — take a breath.

Kouzel says a combination of normal conversational tones and mother-ese are good.

Why we do it

Using mother-ese changes:

  • Rate of speech: We usually speak more slowly to babies
  • Pitch of speech: We usually talk higher or lower
  • Inflection patterns: We usually vary the inflection so our voice goes up and down more
  • Simplicity of sounds: We usually keep our words and sounds simple and repetitive
  • Physical distance: We usually get about 12 to 15 inches from the baby

The concept is based on a quite simple explanation: Baby talk, or mother-ese, works. “Infants learn to appreciate the language they are exposed to when it grabs their attention,” Kouzel says.

Mother-ese grabs a baby’s attention and keeps her attention, which are keys to language and speech development, Kouzel says.

“Mother-ese creates a perfect environment for infants to learn the building blocks of language: Turn taking, pitch changes, loudness, vowel formation, imitation of body position (not sounds yet) and facial expressions,” Kouzel shares.

Research support

A study by Royster, et al., shared at a convention by the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) in 2011, showed a correlation between mothers’ use of real words and sound effects (e.g., boom!, moo, whee!) and later expressive vocabulary development, starting at 7 months.

What real moms think

“It drives me nuts at times and not at others — and sometimes I do it myself,” Sara says. She has a 6-year-old and 6-month-old twins.

“When my 6-year-old talks in this high-pitched, whiny voice to the babies, I want to shake him,” she laughs. “But when my husband, who very rarely talks baby talk, has a moment of smooshy baby jabber — where the baby ends up giggling — it’s incredibly sweet and endearing.”

“I do think [babies] respond to ‘babyish’ interaction more than adult talk,” she adds.

Bev also has three children, ages 6 years, 3 years and 6 months.

“I definitely think it’s helpful for babies,” she says. With her 6-month-old, “It gets a smile out of him every time! I honestly think it helps him communicate with me.”

But dedicated mother-ese stops with her infant. “I’ll only do it to the older two if I want to tease them,” she says with a smile.

Tips to develop talkers

“In my clinical experience, I coach parents of children with speech and language delays to use a mother-ese type of interaction even after the infancy period,” Kouzel says. She recommends adding the following techniques as you speak with your child:

  • Excitement in your voice
  • Inflection changes
  • Simple object and action names
  • Lots of sound effects — boom, zip, uh oh, whee, kapow
  • Imitation games
  • Slower rates of speech
  • Extra time for the child to take his or her turn (this helps the child understand the cues for conversation: First one person talks, then the other person talks)
  • Face-to-face interaction; getting down on the floor, at eye level, even when reading books

“These strategies help to engage the child in you,“ Kouzel points out. “It helps them pay attention to you. Your sounds, your facial expressions, how your mouth moves. [When you wait] for them [to speak, it] gives them the idea that you expect them to communicate and time to figure out what they can do to take their turn.”

For more information on child language development milestones, visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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