Mother with baby and teddy bear

“Where’s the BEAR? Ah! HERE! Hellooooo BEAR!” Why do babies prefer to be spoken to this way, and why do parents and carers do it naturally?

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As you read the title of this article, you can almost hear the parent’s voice in your head: high-pitched, with exaggerated stress, maybe slower than normal speech, and VERY EXCITED to talk about the bear.

In the olden days, this kind of talking used to be called “motherese” or the (less sexist) “parentese”. These days, most researchers call it infant directed speech (or IDS).    

Why do we talk to our babies this way?

Way back in 1985 – while I was busy riding my BMX up and down the mean streets of Ballarat listening to Wham! on my Walkman – Anne Fernald argued that IDS:

  • gets and keeps the child’s attention;
  • helps soothe a distressed infant;
  • marks turn-taking episodes in parent-infant “conversations”;
  • helps the child process the parent’s speech stream, which is important for the development of speech;
  • helps children distinguish statements from questions and commands;
  • highlights new information for the child (e.g. new words); and
  • is preferred to normal adult speech by infants as young as 4 months of age.

More recent research shows that: 

  • across lots of languages, parents and other carers talk to their babies using exaggerated prosodic cues, simple syntax, expanded vowel sounds and, perhaps, slower rates of speech (Menn et al., 2022 – see citation below); 
  • babies start tracking simple repeated sentences from birth (Ortiz Barajas et al., 2021);
  • by 7 months of age, babies’ tracking of speech is sensitive to the kind of speech register adults use, including IDS vs. normal adult speech (e.g. Kalishnikova et al., 2018);
  • IDS may benefit infants’ speech processing (e.g. Haden et al., 2020);
  • compared to adult directed speech, IDS may benefit infants’ early language acquisition, e.g.:
    • frequent IDS exposure boosts later vocabulary development (Ramirez-Esparza et al., 2014);
    • IDS assists infants’ word segmentation and recognition (e.g. Shreiner and Mani, 2007; Singh et al., 2009); and
    • IDS assists infants to acquire word-object associations (e.g. Graf Estes and Hurley, 2013);
  • clinically depressed mothers use less IDS than mothers who are not clinically depressed, which may impact their babies’ early language development (e.g. Lam-Cassettari and Kohloff, 2020); and
  • as babies grow older, parents naturally start to use less IDS, with less prosodic amplitude modulations (less exaggerated stress) (e.g. Leong et al., 2017; Kitamura and Burnham, 2003).   

In natural interactions between babies and their parents, adults have also been observed to exaggerate their facial expressions such as head and lip movements when talking with their babies (e.g. Green et al., 2010). This may help guide babies’ attention to their parents’ speech. 

So which elements of IDS are the most important for speech and language development?

There are several possibilities. A growing body of evidence points to the value of exaggerated prosodic stress. For example:

  • in stress-based languages like English, stressed syllables can provide a valuable cue for segmenting words from continuous speech (e.g. Jusczyk et al., 1999), perhaps because the majority of content words in English have word-initial stress;
  • babies’ neural activity seems to track to speech by synchronising with amplitude modulations corresponding to prosodic stress and syllables in nursery rhymes (e.g. Attaheroi et al., 2022); and
  • the enhanced prosodic stress of IDS (rather than just syllable rhythm) has been shown to help babies of 9 months of age to track speech of their mothers during natural interactions (Menn et al., 2022).

Bottom line

Infant directed speech benefits babies as they learn to process speech and language; and babies prefer it to normal adult speech. We should all use IDS when speaking with babies. 

Hellooooo Bear!

Principal sources: 

  • Fernald, A. (1985). Four-Month-Old Infants Prefer to Listen to Motherese, Infant Behavior and Development 8(2), 181-195.
  • Menn, K.H., Michel, C., Meyer, L., Hoehl, S., and Männel, C. (2022). Natural infant-directed speech facilitates neural tracking of prosody. NeuroImage, 251,  DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2022.118991 – Open-access.

Related articles:

Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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