Baby talk at 0-3 months: Do you speak Motherese?

You may feel silly talking to your baby like this but this silliness is absolutely age appropriate and an important aspect to help boost your little one’s language and communication skills.




By Ankita A Talwar

Remember the legend of Abhimanyu, from the epic Mahabharata, where he had heard in his mother’s womb the conversation between his parents on the strategic Chakravyuha? While there is no reviewing the factual legitimacy of this tale, most experts in recent times have come to agree on one incredibly intriguing fact: that a foetus can hear sounds in the womb, as early as 18 weeks of pregnancy; react to it through kicking or movement around 25-26 weeks of pregnancy and that infants as young as 0-3 months can process sounds cognitively.

In one study, researchers studied how the foetus responds to sounds by placing loudspeakers on the maternal abdomen and recorded their findings (Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Edition, 1994). They found that a whopping 96 per cent of foetuses, at 19 weeks of gestation, responded to auditory stimuli of 500 Hz (we can hear sounds at a frequency of 20-20,000 Hz). This brings us to the next obvious question, whether we can teach babies language early on.

Are babies communicating?

Babies as young as 0-3 months are communicating with people around them all the time, verbally through crying or making baby sounds and non-verbally through body movements and eye contact. A baby’s linguistic skills progress from crying for feed, diaper change and removal of any discomforting issues, to gurgling when happy, at around two weeks. Closer to the second month, they respond to playful interaction through soft coos, squeals, deep delicious laughter and display boredom through long-drawn out whining or fussiness. By the third month, a baby will be interacting by trying to imitate the sounds and expressions of the person talking to him. This is the stage when it becomes imperative to stimulate a baby’s communication skills through parentese or baby talk.

The Good Sense behind Baby Talk

Motherese or Parentese commonly referred to as baby talk, caretaker speech, and in expert circles as  Infant-directed speech (IDS), Child-directed speech (CDS), is used to help an infant of 0-3 months acquire linguistic skills. Parentese is an exaggerated form of speech, sometimes almost musical deemed to be important for kids as it encourages them to hear and then try and imitate the adult’s speech.

The efficacy of this has been proven by many researches including a notable one done by Princeton University that mapped parentese across nine languages including Mandarin and Russian (Motherese—The Sound of Baby Talk Across Languages). The virtue of parentese lies in the fact that babies first start learning language not by individual words but by rhythm and intonation since their first introduction to sound is through voice carried by the fluids in the womb very akin to listening while swimming—you don’t understand the words, but you do hear the sound and its variations.

The exaggerated sing song voice holds a baby’s attention longer than monotonal adult-style conversation would. Also, the variation of the pitch helps the baby tune into a smaller chunk of the auditory input, making processing  of language a more manageable task.

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Do you speak Motherese?

Words in baby talk are kept to very simple sounds and repeated syllables.  An effective parentese has a few rules that can be picked up by you. These include:

  • Diminutive forms of words (adding ‘ie’ at the end of a word. For eg: birdie),
  • exaggerated speech melody (for example when saying the word ‘baby’, pull the sound of ‘a’ and ‘y’ longer than you would do otherwise )
  • talking  in short phrases (“Mumma come”, Mommy sees YOU”,  “Bye Bye car”),
  • talking in mother tongue,
  • keeping the pitch higher than you would,
  • keeping the pace of speech slow since infants process language much slower than adults
  • hyper-articulation of keywords (Baby “NO”),
  • and shortening or simplifying words
  • Try to put the keywords at the end of the phrase. For example: “Baby sees the doggie” rather than saying the “Doggie is coming here.” As a rule, when talking to babies, emphasise on a few specific words at one go—either the emotion, object or the person.
  • Using words in isolation. Saying “apple” while pointing to one will help the baby process it better than saying “The apple is kept here.”
  • Repetition and reduplication of words. Whenever you hand the baby the bottle, say the word “bottle”. Repetition helps them make stronger mental representation of frequent words.
  • Also, including sound effects, like “meow,” “vroom vroom” and “grr,” hold a baby’s attention, which maximizes their word-learning potential.

But over-simplifying words or coming up with unrelated sounds or words for an object is not helpful. Calling a biscuit “bikki” or water “mum-mum” does not help. It will be hard for the child when later  you will want them to learn the correct words. Remember the process of unlearning is always harder than learning.

Remember the legend of Abhimanyu, from the epic Mahabharata, where he had heard in his mother’s womb the conversation between his parents on the strategic Chakravyuha? While there is no reviewing the factual legitimacy of this tale, most experts in recent times have come to agree on one incredibly intriguing fact: that a foetus can hear sounds in the womb, as early as 18 weeks of pregnancy; react to it through kicking or movement around 25-26 weeks of pregnancy and that infants as young as 0-3 months can process sounds cognitively.

In one study, researchers studied how the foetus responds to sounds by placing loudspeakers on the maternal abdomen and recorded their findings (Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Edition, 1994). They found that a whopping 96 per cent of foetuses, at 19 weeks of gestation, responded to auditory stimuli of 500 Hz (we can hear sounds at a frequency of 20-20,000 Hz). This brings us to the next obvious question, whether we can teach babies language early on.

Are babies communicating?

Babies as young as 0-3 months are communicating with people around them all the time, verbally through crying or making baby sounds and non-verbally through body movements and eye contact. A baby’s linguistic skills progress from crying for feed, diaper change and removal of any discomforting issues, to gurgling when happy, at around two weeks. Closer to the second month, they respond to playful interaction through soft coos, squeals, deep delicious laughter and display boredom through long-drawn out whining or fussiness. By the third month, a baby will be interacting by trying to imitate the sounds and expressions of the person talking to him. This is the stage when it becomes imperative to stimulate a baby’s communication skills through parentese or baby talk.

The Good Sense behind Baby Talk

Motherese or Parentese commonly referred to as baby talk, caretaker speech, and in expert circles as  Infant-directed speech (IDS), Child-directed speech (CDS), is used to help an infant of 0-3 months acquire linguistic skills. Parentese is an exaggerated form of speech, sometimes almost musical deemed to be important for kids as it encourages them to hear and then try and imitate the adult’s speech.

The efficacy of this has been proven by many researches including a notable one done by Princeton University that mapped parentese across nine languages including Mandarin and Russian (Motherese—The Sound of Baby Talk Across Languages). The virtue of parentese lies in the fact that babies first start learning language not by individual words but by rhythm and intonation since their first introduction to sound is through voice carried by the fluids in the womb very akin to listening while swimming—you don’t understand the words, but you do hear the sound and its variations.

The exaggerated sing song voice holds a baby’s attention longer than monotonal adult-style conversation would. Also, the variation of the pitch helps the baby tune into a smaller chunk of the auditory input, making processing  of language a more manageable task.

Do you speak Motherese?

Words in baby talk are kept to very simple sounds and repeated syllables.  An effective parentese has a few rules that can be picked up by you. These include:

Diminutive forms of words (adding ‘ie’ at the end of a word. For eg: birdie),

exaggerated speech melody (for example when saying the word ‘baby’, pull the sound of ‘a’ and ‘y’ longer than you would do otherwise )

talking  in short phrases (“Mumma come”, Mommy sees YOU”,  “Bye Bye car”),

talking in mother tongue,

keeping the pitch higher than you would,

keeping the pace of speech slow since infants process language much slower than adults

hyper-articulation of keywords (Baby “NO”),

and shortening or simplifying words

Try to put the keywords at the end of the phrase. For example: “Baby sees the doggie” rather than saying the “Doggie is coming here.” As a rule, when talking to babies, emphasise on a few specific words at one go—either the emotion, object or the person.

Using words in isolation. Saying “apple” while pointing to one will help the baby process it better than saying “The apple is kept here.”

Repetition and reduplication of words. Whenever you hand the baby the bottle, say the word “bottle”. Repetition helps them make stronger mental representation of frequent words.

Also, including sound effects, like “meow,” “vroom vroom” and “grr,” hold a baby’s attention, which maximizes their word-learning potential.

ALSO READ | Not losing it in the lockdown: A simple guide for stay-at-home mothers

But over-simplifying words or coming up with unrelated sounds or words for an object is not helpful. Calling a biscuit “bikki” or water “mum-mum” does not help. It will be hard for the child when later  you will want them to learn the correct words. Remember the process of unlearning is always harder than learning.

You may feel silly talking to your baby like this but this silliness is absolutely age appropriate and an important aspect to help boost your little one’s language and  communication skills.

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