The Best Ways to Talk to Your Baby to Facilitate Speech Development

The Best Ways to Talk to Your Baby to Facilitate Speech Development

There’s more than one method to building up your little one’s speech skills.

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Talking to your baby can be fun, but it’s not all fun and games. Everything you say to an infant (and even a toddler) influences the way and the speed at which he learns to speak. Narrating what you do every day, singing, reading, speaking in “baby talk,” asking questions, facilitating conversations, and virtually any noises you make when you are around your infant affects her speech development as well as other skills. In all, babies and toddlers need to hear more than 20,000 words a day, according to Krysti Maloney, M.S., CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist and supervisor at The Suffolk Center for Speech.

Clearly you need to talk a lot to your little one. But how should you speak, exactly? Whether you use nonsense words like “ittle-widdle,” sing-song speech, or address her like she is a full-grown adult, each of these approaches has a different impact on your child’s speech development. Certain methods such as baby-babble may come more naturally, while tactics like narrating what you’re doing may feel forced or uncomfortable at first. However you talk to your baby, it is important to recognize the benefits and disadvantages of each method—and know when and how to use each. 
    

Don’t Be Afraid of ‘Parentese’

Many experts have weighed in on the topic of baby talk, saying the best way to teach adult language to a baby is to speak to him as though he is a grown-up. However, ‘parentese’ (also known as infant-directed speech or ‘motherese’), a sing-song voice that puts emphasis on certain sounds, may be the best way to help a baby learn how to speak, according to a new Rutgers University-Newark study on infant-directed speech. 

Parentese refers to the fluctuating speech patterns people use when speaking to babies, according to Corie Viscomi, M.A., CCC-SLP, director and speech-language pathologist at The Speech Studio in Chappaqua. While it may be second nature to speak to your baby in this cutesy, fun manner, you are actually facilitating speech development in doing so. This speech pattern makes it easier for babies to determine which words are the most important to the meaning of what you are saying because you are placing emphasis on the key words in the sentence. 

“Changing the emphasis, speed, and pitch is a very good thing for infants because it helps kids differentiate between your words and background noise,” Viscomi says. “Motherese tells babies what words to pay attention to and breaks down speech a little more, and infants need that.”

This form of speech will generally fade out gradually in accordance with the baby’s speech development, according to Viscomi, so there’s no need to determine a set time to stop speaking this way.

While changing intonation and melody when speaking, using elongated vowels and consonants, and changing pitches, it is important to remember to speak with precise pronunciation and accurate grammar, according to Maloney.

Part of speaking in parentese, according to Viscomi, is using a lot of repetition. Lisa Orban, mother of five and author of It’ll Feel Better when it Quits Hurting, found that using repetitive phrases such as ‘Who’s a good baby?’ or ‘Where’s the baby?’ were helpful in teaching her children to talk, but not accompanied by any sort of baby-talk.

“I used conversational English with them throughout their infancy going forward and never ‘dumbed down’ my speaking around them,” Orban says. 

By the time her children entered preschool, Orban says they each had a far wider vocabulary than their peers and had an easier time determining words through context. “They also had a more nuanced understanding of humor and sarcasm, much higher than their age level,” she says.

Still, Megan Carolan, mother and director of policy research at the Institute for Child Success in Jersey City, NJ, emphasizes the fact that using baby talk is okay. 

“Babies babble as they start finding their own abilities and they eventually try to imitate sounds,” Carolan says. “Cooing back and forth with them, especially when they are very little and just starting these noises, is a great contribution to their language development. It’s good to incorporate real words that they might hear more often (bottle, milk, crib, toy) alongside the cute versions like ‘baba.’ It doesn’t need to be one or the other.” 
    

Avoid the Temptation of Telegraphic Speech

Telegraphic speech refers to the way children begin to speak—in shortened phrases, using only nouns and verbs, and omitting the “small words” such as adjectives and articles that make the sentence grammatically correct, according to Viscomi. Examples of telegraphic speech include “more cookie,” “mommy help,” and “doggie run.”

“Parents can be tempted to speak the same way to toddlers, assuming that it is easier for them to learn language this way,” Viscomi says. “This is not the case! Young children learn language by hearing language, so it is important to model grammatically correct sentences but in a simple way.”

Parents who use telegraphic speech more frequently tend to have children who know fewer words and take longer to learn to speak, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing. The study observed 55 parent-child pairs in which the children were on average 3 and 4 years old. While speaking this way to your young child may feel natural, it is not recommended, especially to children with delayed language development and autism spectrum disorder. 

“Telegraphic speech won’t help the child learn grammar,” Viscomi says. “Kids can’t use proper grammar unless they’re hearing it. If you use the full grammatical structure of a sentence, young kids will be provided with a better language model.” 
    

Facilitate Conversation, Don’t Interrogate

The more words a child hears a day, the better. But this doesn’t mean putting her in front of the TV or downloading apps on his iPad. Make conversation with your child, no matter her age or stage of development. It is important to keep interactions with a child at any age as lengthy as possible, but 1- to 2-year-olds often feel interrogated when we quiz them with a bunch of questions, according to Viscomi. One way to keep the conversation going without putting pressure on your young child is to make statements instead of asking questions. For example, try saying, “Oh, this cow looks hungry, I think it’s going to eat something” as opposed to “What animal is this? What does a cow eat? What does the cow say?” (This tactic is helpful with older kids and teens as well.) 

“With children who are beginning to exhibit babbling, I often suggest imitating the sounds you hear them make,” Maloney says. “A ‘conversation’ made up of pure baby-babble can be a helpful learning moment—your little one will start to learn the give-and-take of conversation and be more likely to imitate things he hears you say.”

Talking about what you’re doing while you’re doing it may feel silly or seem uncomfortable, but it is actually the best and easiest way to incorporate language learning into the everyday lives of kids, according to Viscomi. This kind of learning provides kids with tangible models for new concepts and vocabulary they may not have been exposed to otherwise. 

“Babies take in so much well before they are able to respond,” Carolan says. “If you have your child in the stroller and you’re in the grocery store, talk about walking down the aisle, picking up pasta for dinner, etc.”

Facilitating open-ended conversations even before children can respond fosters language engagement, according to Carolan. It is important to be conscious of the fact that a lot of conversations young children have with adults consist of instruction: “Don’t touch that,” “No,” “Put on your coat.” Instead of leading primarily with instruction, Carolan suggests creating scenarios in which children can choose between options, such as deciding which color sweatshirt they want to wear. This not only fosters a richer vocabulary and language skills, but also self-regulation skills, she says. 

Reading to, singing to, talking to, and having face-to-face interaction with your child is teaching him way more than you think. Reading is such a huge ‘life hack’ for fostering language development and literacy skills,” Carolan says. “I find that when I try to make up a story off the top of my head, I freeze up. However, keeping a book in the diaper bag is so helpful. Even if we don’t read it word for word, we talk about the pictures and what’s going on.”

While the words we choose and the way we use them matter, “the most important thing to remember is to talk to your child,” Maloney says.

   
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