Inclusion and wellbeing

Myth-busting 'baby talk': Why babies can get bored of hearing your voice

The do's and don'ts of infant directed speech, a.k.a. baby talk
October 5, 2022
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In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down:

  • Children's language development begins in the first months of life. Today, we'll look at baby talk, or infant directed speech, and the role it plays in early education.
  • While you may think that there’s a daily word count you must hit with your infant, the quality of your interactions is what matters more.
  • In this story, we share some research and tips to help support young children's language skills in early education.

From a very young age, we are well-equipped with the skills required to acquire and produce language. At just 6 to 9 months, infants understand the meaning of many common words, even if they are unable to join in on the conversation.

The development of language in childhood happens quickly. Within the first year of life, babies go from cooing, to babbling, to producing words. However, every child's speech development is different, so the onset of these milestones may vary (which is totally fine, too!).

There's a fairly common misconception that there is a specific word count that we must hit each day in our social interactions with babies, to help maximize their learning.

In reality, this isn't exactly the case.

Speech and early language development are complex subjects. It can be difficult to know what to say, and how to say it, in order to support the little ones in your early education setting.

So how exactly can we use baby talk, also known as infant directed speech, in early education? As we'll explore, it's not just about our speaking style or facial expressions. It's also about knowing when to talk.

In this story, we'll look at the latest research on infant directed speech, and what you should know for your daily work in early education.

Child speech development begins at birth, with children understanding words' meanings in the first months of life.

With baby talk, it's about quality over quantity

It's easy to feel like constantly talking to a young child is the best way to progress their language acquisition. While infants are well-equipped to learn and produce language, they can also get bored easily during this process.

So it’s more important that we pay more attention to the quality of the interactions that we have with the little ones. 

A 2015 study from Temple University  found that the quality of the input that a child receives is related to their later vocabulary skills. More specifically, they found that this was more important than the number of words the child heard.

Rather than focusing on hitting your daily word count goal, it’s more effective to focus on things like the number of conversational turns – in other words, the back and forth in an interaction – that you share with children.

The do's and don'ts of infant directed speech

Let's get concrete. When we say quality over quantity, what does that look like in the classroom?

What we don’t mean is:

  • Rush or interrupt a child’s attempt to communicate. Young children are still learning and practicing how to use their communication skills. Patience is a virtue – so, give them some time to say what they want to say.
  • Constantly trying to redirect a child’s attention. If you notice that a child is engaged in playing with a particular toy or activity, give them time to explore, rather than trying to get them to look at something else you’re holding. With time, they will likely have something to say or show you; giving you a great opportunity to connect.

Instead, try:

  • Letting the little ones take the lead. If a child makes an attempt to communicate to you – whether by pointing, showing, or vocalising – respond to them! 
  • Give them your full attention. Make eye contact, turn your head and body toward them, and use a warm, gentle voice. Being present and in the moment with a child helps them to understand that you’re genuinely interested in interacting with them. 

With children who are too young to talk, or those who are non-verbal, there are still many great moments to connect with them. Every child is different, so the way you respond may differ, but it’s always best to give any child who makes a communication attempt your utmost attention, and give them a response. This could be talking about that cool thing they found in your early education setting, or even just nodding so they know you’re interested.

In short, by creating meaningful moments, and bringing warmth and sincerity into the interaction, you’ll be greatly supporting your children’s early language development. These authentic intentions are a key component in helping babies learn the nuances behind speech and communication.

Two parents lay down with their baby and speak to the child.

Creating meaningful moments for language development

Let’s take a look at some ways to engage with young children to support their early language development, and the research behind those ideas.

We'll start with the concept of contingent engagement.

Have you ever made a request, or asked someone a question, to which they didn’t respond? 

In developmental psychology, contingent (or responsive) engagement is known as communication in which the recipient is fully attentive to receiving, processing, and responding

This is crucial for infant directed speech. Many research studies have suggested that contingent and responsive interactions with infants is beneficial for their vocabulary growth and communication skill development. In short, responsive interactions help babies learn how they should interact with someone. 

For example, if a child holds up a ball to show it to you, a contingent response would be: “Oh look, it’s a ball! You can bounce the ball like this.” What’s crucial here is that the contingent response happens soon after the initiation from the child.

In short, if your child makes a communication attempt to you, it’s always best to respond to them – in any context. Whether they want to show you something interesting they found on the ground, or just want to see your face, it’s important to give them your full attention so they know you’re there, and so they feel attended to.

The importance of repetition in your speaking style

Practice makes perfect, right?

Rather than over-saturating an infant with 18 different words in one sentence, we can help babies learn by repeating a few words and short phrases to them. Repeated words and phrases become familiar to them over time, leading to better retention and acquisition. 

Now, we aren’t suggesting that you repeat the same word over and over to them. Instead, it’s important to ensure that these target words are in context. For example, by following children’s gaze to see what they’re interested in, or referring to relevant objects within the room.

Additionally, research suggests that successive repetition may be beneficial for infant’s language and word learning. In other words, repeating a target word in different contexts can help children to form solid connections between the word and the physical object. 

Let’s say you’re playing with your little one’s favourite stuffed animal with them. During this interaction, you could engage in successive repetition by saying:

  • “That’s your teddy bear!”
  • “The teddy bear is brown.”
  • “Look! Your teddy bear is dancing!”

Now, this isn’t to say that your child needs to hear 7 utterances in a row for them to learn – pauses are just as important as repetition! This shouldn’t become a ‘drill’ for children, simply a consistent mention of something that’s relevant to what you’re doing. Make sure to give them some time to take in what you’ve said to them.

Care routines are a big opportunity to speak to children and work on language development

Joint attention, and why it matters for babies' language acquisition

Joint attention is the ability to share a common focus with another individual. In the case of you and your child, this may be in the context of doing a shared activity together, like reading a picture book.

Research suggests that infants who are more responsive to joint attention between 6-18 months have a greater vocabulary at 30 months. Since they must keep track of what others know at different points in the conversation, children begin to learn more about their own language, and how to participate in conversations.

Here are some different ways you can engage in joint attention with babies and children:

  • Read aloud together. It can sometimes feel daunting when trying to think about things to talk about with your child. With the support of a book, you and your child can be engaged in a meaningful moment together. Rather than spending your time trying to think of unrelated things to say to them, just to fill the air, you can maintain their engagement through a shared activity.
  • Play with objects that your child is interested in. Babies are most interested in learning about things that interest them – such as their favourite toy, the cup that’s in their hand, or the ball at the other side of the room that they can’t help but stare at. So, next time you notice their interest in something, that’s a great moment to talk about it together!
  • Pointing. Pointing is a unique milestone for infants, and is directly related to their later language abilities. This simple gesture helps them communicate to you what they may not have the words to say. If your little one points to something, be responsive and direct your attention to what they want to show you! On the contrary, if you have something to share with them, it’s helpful to accompany your pointing gesture with a warm tone, and increased pitch, to really get their attention. 

It can sometimes feel like there is a lot of pressure to ensure that your little one is supported in every facet of their wellbeing. When it comes to their early language development, a shorter interaction with fewer words and utterances can still be a rich learning experience for young children. The most important thing to remember is any interaction that is meaningful, warm, and genuine is best

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below how Famly helped Tenderlinks in recording child development, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.