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Baby talk refers to the following frustrating set of behaviors: talking in babyish, intentionally slurred speech; speaking in a quiet under their breath so that you can’t make out what they’re saying; whining about the silliest things; and looking down or holding their chin down as they talk so they avoid direct eye contact. This behavior should cease by the time a child gets to kindergarten, but some children continue to try the baby-talk approach well into elementary school. Simply put, this behavior should be unacceptable and parents must deal with the problem immediately and consistently. If not, the behavior will get reinforced and they may possibly continue to act like a regressed toddler for years to come.

Why do older kids use baby talk?

Older kids use baby talk for one of two reasons: they believe it will get them what they want, or they want to annoy you so that you feel the same thing they feel. When your child tries to annoy you, it’s not vindictive. The logic goes like this: I’m annoyed and not getting what I want, so I am going to annoy my parent so they don’t get what they want, either. In these moments, the child sees you as the one with power who could give them what they want but chooses to withhold it.

How the parent’s frustration fuels the fire

If you hate the baby talk as much as other parents, you must be careful to not show your upset feelings to your child. In other words, if your child sees that it upsets you, they will keep doing it. Kids use baby talk as a last resort. Once they realize that they are not going to get what they want, they feel like they have nothing to lose by making the parent upset, too. In fact, making you upset makes them feel a little more powerful in a moment when they don’t feel they have any power at all. (Remember, most of these episodes will start because the child was told “no.”)  It’s fine to be annoyed with your child for this annoying, manipulative behavior, but remember that showing your frustration will make your child feel that they’ve succeeded in upsetting you, and they will keep doing it because kids – any of us, really – like feeling powerful.

What parents should do to stop the behavior in its tracks

The second that your child makes a baby talk statement or starts whining like a toddler, label the problem out loud immediately. “Okay, I notice you are using baby talk and whining.” Take an immediate break from the interaction or you will likely get sucked into a conflict and end up getting upset, thereby reinforcing the annoying behavior. After you have labeled the behavior and called attention to it, say, “I don’t pay attention when you use baby talk. Let’s come back together in a few minutes and try again.” Go distract yourself with a tiny task and take some deep breaths while you’re at it. A few minutes later, recite the following: “I do want to hear what you are upset about, but the only thing I ask is that you say it in a grownup voice, not a baby voice. Now, what were you upset about?”

This approach is very simple: label it, take a break for a few minutes, and then give your child a final chance to tell you why they’re upset in a grownup voice. If you truly want to get rid of the baby talk behavior altogether, use this same approach and script every single time it happens. The key to changing behavior is to respond consistently to it. If you stick to the script and you handle the problem the same way every single time, you will quickly see that the behavior gets extinguished. Most of all, always try to detect when your child is trying to enlist you in a power struggle, and avoid getting sucked into the struggle!

How does a baby figure out which mouth movements make what sounds? New research from the University of Washington suggests that baby’s brains are busy with just that task in the months ahead of being able to actually talk. And these necessary brain changes are linked to the conversations babies hear.

Like a lot of complex skills, we adults often forget how many steps are involved and the micro-skills necessary for mastery. We don’t remember that when we learned to walk, we didn’t just learn how to put one foot in front of the other, but learned how to balance our weight, how to shift weight from one side to the other, and how to coordinate our weight with our feet with the movements of our arms. Walking is not so simple as it seems, and neither is talking.

Learning to talk is not just a matter of mastering a few vocabulary words but of figuring out how to move one’s lips and tongue to make the sounds a child hears being said. Without any sort of guide, babies break this code. The babbling infants do is a form of practice. But in order to actually transition from babbling to saying a first word, a child has to hear the word and move his mouth in the right way to duplicate it. This takes a special sort of brain development and that’s where parents come in.

Researchers have found that hearing speech sounds stimulates the areas of the brain that coordinate and plan movements needed for speech.  This is news. It’s not just that hearing words communicates meaning to a child. Hearing words changes the brain’s motor cortex so that a baby can move her mouth in the right way.

This change happens sometime between seven and 11 months of age. According to lead author, Patricia Kuhl, “Finding activation in motor areas of the brain when infants are simply listening is significant, because it means the baby brain is engaged in trying to talk back right from the start and suggests that 7-month-olds’ brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words.”

What does this mean for you and your baby?

Like most skills, learning to talk is more complicated and takes longer to master than it actually appears. And like most developmental abilities, parents’ attention and care are the keys.

Talk with your baby!


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.


Watch parents with tiny children at the zoo. They hold a baby up so she can see, mom or dad points a finger and says, “Look! Look at that bear.” That’s good. Conversation is good. Pointing is helpful. But what’s more helpful is doing more than just naming.

In a study at Northwestern University reported in the journal Cognition, toddlers whose parents told what the pointed-to thing was doing understood the name of that thing better. Saying, “Look! Look at that bear walking around” helps a child know what, exactly, you’re talking about.

Your own experience with preschool children bears this out. My grandkids often say, “Look at that, Grandma!” and point out the window… but I have no idea what I’m supposed to see.  It wouldn’t help me much if they said, “Look at that blick, Grandma!” because I wouldn’t know what a “blick” is. But if they said, “Look, Grandma! Look at that blick flying in the sky” I would know what to look for and I’d know what to call it.

The amazing thing is that toddlers think exactly the same way. They use clues embedded in our conversations to figure out the meaning of a new word.  It takes longer and is harder to learn a word just from the word alone.

This is why board books that tell stories provide a richer language experience than board books that depict just a single picture on a page with a single word identifying it. A story about a ball, bouncing down the roadway and bumping into a duck,  is more interesting and develops more language than a photo of a ball, followed on a later page by a photo of a duck.

Notice that telling what the unfamiliar thing is doing is key. Just saying “Look at that bear over there” doesn’t help too much. Over where?  Which of the many things in the direction you’re pointing do you mean? Linking the new word to a verb – to what is happening – gives a baby the information he needs.

According to the study’s author Sandra Waxman, “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.” It also reinforces the importance of talking a lot with babies, even though it seems that they cannot possibly understand.

Babies understand more than we think and they figure things out better than we imagine. Talk with your baby and tell him exactly what’s going on.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Your baby had nearly fully-developed hearing even in the last few months before birth. He was eavesdropping on your conversations even in the womb. Learning language is that important: the hardware to hear is ready to go from the first moments of life.

So why does it take nearly two years for your child really to start to talk? Is there any reason to pay attention to a baby’s language much before age two?

Actually, a lot happens for language development in the first few months of life. Babies hear what is spoken around them and their brains shape themselves to be receptive to only the speech sounds the babies hear. By about 10 months, babies who once could hear any speech sound of any language in the world have narrowed their focus to only the speech sounds of the language spoken at home.

Babies practice those speech sounds. They babble. They babble in what sound like sentences. They seem to be trying to communicate, long before they can actually speak.

Slowly, your baby refines his babbling to imitate the words you emphasize. By about 11 months, your child says his first word, even though your friends couldn’t quite hear it. More words quickly follow and pretty soon other people believe that your kid is talking.

And then, if you talk to your child, the “language explosion” takes over. By the time your child is five he will have learned over 5000 words and will be able to speak in full sentences, ask questions, talk about yesterday and tomorrow, and even lie once in a while. This happens pretty much by itself. Your child is pre-programmed to learn to talk. It just happens.

So if kids learn to talk pretty much on their own, what’s your role? Do parents matter?

Absolutely. In fact, you’re the most important part of the puzzle. Without you, your child would have had the potential to speak but never really got there. Those 5,000 words by age five? Those come from you.

But the 5,000 words don’t come as vocabulary lessons. Teaching a child to talk is not like cramming for the SAT. The 5,000 words come in everyday conversations together, talking about the weather and what you did today and what’s for dinner.

Your role is to model language. You talk with your child as if she were a friend. You ask about her day, talk about what clothes she wants to wear and so on. You ask questions and wait for the answers. When you talk to your child, you don’t just give orders. You don’t just speak in as few words as possible. You demonstrate how people talk. To learn language, children have to hearlanguage and they have to have practice speaking it. That’s what you’re there for.

So be extravagant. Use lots of words, use complicated sentences, say silly things. The more you use language with your child the smarter he will get. As long as you let your child talk too, more language from you means more language for him.

It’s easy to get impatient. You’re busy, you don’t have much time. If you wait for your kid to tell you something you’ll never get anywhere. But if you don’t wait, you’re kid will never get anywhere. You’ve got to slow down and take the time to talk. And to listen.

Think of something you learned that required some practice but is now automatic. Maybe you learned to drive a car or ride a bicycle or make pancakes. The first few tries were probably not all that successful. Even after you mastered the techniques, you had to be careful to remember all the steps. You had to think about it. You were slow.

But you learned. You got faster with practice. Now you hardly need to think. But if someone had taken over—because you were so slow—and done things for you, you would never have learned. You might even have felt that the job was too hard for you. It might’ve seemed easier just to let someone else do it.

You want your child to learn to talk, and not only that, you want your child to learn to talk well. You want him to be able to put his thoughts into words and to think new thoughts because he has the language to do that. And learning this takes practice. It takes time to master.

Speaking might be natural, but it still takes time and loving parents to get really good at it.