Talking with Baby

As information hungry parents, we have heard about the benefits of talking to your baby. Heck, there’s even TV commercials that remind us that talking and reading to our babies helps boost their brains (thanks, First 5 California).

Turns out all the hype about talking to your baby isn’t hype at all. It’s real stuff. Studies show that kiddos who don’t hear as many words, lag behind in language skills by age 2.

Children cannot learn what they don’t hear.

As a speech therapist, talking is my job. It’s what I do all day, every day. But I know the struggle and that feeling when you’re home with baby for 10 straight hours (sometimes more!). It can sometimes seem repetitive to try to explain what you’re doing over and over again, while still trying to maintain your sanity. I mean… how many different ways can you say, “Wowser, someone needs a new diaper!”

Here are some starting points. Maybe you’re thinking….

I don’t know what to say to my baby. Where should I start?

Want some validation that talking to your baby really DOES make a difference? Check out the famous 30 Million Word Gap study. It looked at different groups of parent-child interactions over time. It showed that all groups of parents had the same amount of “business talk” to their kiddos, no matter their socioeconomic status or race. Things like “Where’s your father? Who gave you that? Get down from there! No playing with matches!”

The biggest differentiator was the fluff. The richness that comes in language naturally when we talk about specific details of the day, describe events as they’re happening with all the sensory components involved. That same study found that parents who added more fluff in their chatter, had kiddos that performed better on language tests and were better readers too.

But talking all day is exhausting! Yes. Yes it is. Think of it this way. Involve your baby in the things that you do during the day. Don’t feel like you can only eat or drink when baby’s napping… make yourself a cup of tea or quick sandwich with baby nearby so you can talk about the sequence of events, the smells, the sounds, the reasons… “Mommy is craving a hot cup of calming chamomile tea right now because the San Francisco fog is a complete drag today!” And know that you really are boosting your baby’s learning potential later in life.

What is the best tone to talk to baby in? Is it better to use a baby voice or an adult voice?

Research shows that motherese or parentese is how babies learn language best. This means that the short sentences coupled with high pitched, sing songy voice you use to talk to your baby actually benefits them early on.

However, parentese shouldn’t be mistaken for “baby talk.” Example… parentese goes like this, “Oh baaaaaby. Mommy’s here. Heeellloooo, you have the most beautiful eyes.”

Where baby talk is more intentional mispronunciations and baby words, like, “Who’s Mommy’s wittle baby, Mommy’s wight here to give your baba.”

Definitely stick to more parentese and avoid baby talk. It’s best to use real, adult versions of words with correct pronunciations, but your intonation can be modified to make language more like a song.

Does turning on the radio to NPR simulate talking?

Trust me, I get it. Talking to your baby 24/7 is impossible, and sometimes you just want someone else to do it for you. Unfortunately, news radio won’t be the substitute you’re looking for. Babies actually have difficulty distinguishing sounds when it’s “background noise.” And even talk radio is considered exactly that.

Your baby needs a live human voice, one that’s dynamic, not monotone… one that talks about things happening right now to understand that words have meaning, not necessarily the latest gossip and theories of political candidates. So talking to your baby about what you’re doing, or reading out loud in a captivating way is what really stimulates your baby’s brain.

However, don’t shy away from music during your “break times” from narrating your day. Studies show that singing and music helps baby stay calm for almost twice as long than someone speaking! Anecdote here: when my baby was 4 months old, crying would cease immediately when we played “Home” by Phillip Phillips. Try it in a moment of desperation. It’s kind of magical.

What are some parent behaviors to avoid?

Listen, we all do the best we can and turns out that children are resilient. But if you’re looking for “DON’T” list, it’s pretty short. Babies thrive in nurturing and stimulating environments, and at the end of the day, we just do what we can live with.

A short list:
Limit background noise during your one-on-one time so that baby can focus on you, your voice, your face, and your words.
Turn off the radio and TV during playtime so baby is less distracted.
Don’t just “talk business” to your baby. Remember the fluff and give them that language rich environment with some loving parentese type speech in there too.
Seems simple, but don’t forget the face time. Look into their eyes often when you’re talking, playing, or singing. After all, it’s you they love most, so let them know that they have your attention.

Erika Cardamone is a speech-language pathologist, Mom and founder of Baby School, a course that teaches parents how to play with their babies. In her free time, she’s searching for umami in her local eateries, building forts and having dance parties with her toddler and husband in their small city apartment. If you want to know what she’s thinking, she’ll tell you at her blog over at

Want to meet Erika and learn more about talking with your little one?

Register for her workshop, “Baby Language: Ways to Foster Speech, Cognition, and Bilingualism” on Monday, March 21 at 3:45pm at our San Francisco Store.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *