smiling mom and baby: parentese what it is and why you should use it to talk to your baby or child

It’s never too soon to begin having one-on-one communication time with your little one. Babies and infants naturally show a desire to engage in basic social communication and any interaction you have with your little ones will help boost early brain development. Early communication will also help them develop pre-lingustic skills, help them learn about voices, sounds, words and how to engage socially with the world around them.

What is Baby Talk? And should you use Baby Talk to communicate with your child? Or is Parentese a better idea? What exactly is Parentese and will using it assist in a child’s long-term speech and language development? Here, a speech therapist and audiologist answers all your questions.

Baby Talk vs Parentese: what’s the difference?

It is essential to note that there are fundamental differences between conventional ‘baby talk’ and ‘Parentese’ – these two terms should not be used interchangeably.

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What is Baby Talk?

Baby talk is not a specific speaking style and often makes use of inaccurate models of speech and language to children – it is merely a mixture of phonetic sounds, nonsense or made-up words and incomplete or ungrammatical sentence structure, which does not follow typical language patterns.

What is Parentese?

Parentese, on the other hand, is a specific social and linguistic speaking style which is infant directed and has shown to positively benefit children’s speech and language development. It is fully grammatical speech (although simpler linguistic structure is used to engage your child), it makes use of real words with exaggerated vowels, using a sing-song or higher pitched voice, continued repetition and it is often spoken at a slower rate to allow for turn-taking and engagement with your child.

mom and baby talking: should you use baby talk or parentese to talk to a baby

Is Parentese really that beneficial for a child?  

Yes. A thousand times yes. Fundamental research over the years have shown that parental language input is one of the best predictors of children’s language achievement. Infant studies have shown that children of parents who were effectively coached and made use of infant directed speech (Parentese), were shown to have a larger vocabulary by 18 months of age, developed strong pre-linguistic skills as well as social language and communicative development, all of which stemmed from the effective use of Parentese and constant back-and-forth communicative interaction.

How can I perfect my Parentese?

It is important to note that your baby does not need to understand what you are saying, rather you should focus on the way you say it and how you engage with your child. Make use of Parentese and interaction in everyday simple contexts, this will increase language opportunities, repetition and bonding with your baby. Diaper changes, bath time, bottle feeding, tummy time – all time is talk time!

  • Make sure that your child is in a position where you are facing each other. This will facilitate eye-contact, allow them to engage and take in your facial expressions.
  • Begin engagement by capturing your child’s attention (for example, you could say: “How is Mummy’s liiiitle liiiitle baby?”).
  • During feeding you can say something (in a sing-song/higher pitch) like, “It’s time for [child’s name] to eat. Are you hungry? Yes, you are. Yes, you are, hungry”, “Will you have your bottle? Will you have some veggies? Will you have some carrots… carrots…carrots? Yes, you will. Mummy knows you will.”
  • Follow your child’s lead. Watch for signs or signals that tell you that your infant hears, or is paying attention to, your voice. Some infants get ‘bright-eyed’, others wiggle with excitement and some will begin babbling or making vocalisations – just look out for any signs that they’re engaging with you.
  • Always make sure you use the correct words and phrases and not made up ones e.g. “na-na” instead of bottle/milk. By using the right words for objects, your child will learn new vocabulary by learning to associate and engage better.

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Remember the key aspects of Parentese are to:

  1. Increase your pitch
  2. Use exaggerated sounds
  3. Speak slowly with more pauses
  4. Use facial expressions
  5. Use simple real words and phrases
  6. Speak in a sing–song voice
  7. Use repetition
  8. Have fun!

In conclusion, should you be speaking Parentese to your baby? Yes, that IS the answer!

Nabeelah Kathrada is a speech therapist and audiologist based in the East Rand of Johannesburg. She provides treatment for both children and adults focusing on speech, language, communication and feeding disorders. She is passionate about early childhood development and neurological communication disorders. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing and time with her family.