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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!

If your preschooler stutters – repeating words or initial word sounds over and over, unable to get out what he wants to say – he’s in good company. A recent study of over 1600 children found that 11% of four-year-olds stutter or had stuttered when younger. This is more than twice the previous estimates of the incidence of stuttering.

So stuttering is more “normal” than we’d thought. In addition, stuttering is not, as we’d thought, a big problem. Children who stutter do not have poorer outcomes than other kids. In fact, the study found that stuttering was associated with better language development, better non-verbal skills, and excellent adjustment, compared to other non-stuttering four-year-olds.

If your child stutters, it’s not a huge cause for worry.

This is a good thing, since the level of resolution from stuttering is low. Only 6.3% of children who stutter no longer stutter 12 months after they began. Most children who stutter do so for longer than a year.

The cause of stuttering is mysterious. There appears to be an hereditary element, since stuttering sometimes runs in families. It can be a result of early brain injury, perhaps at birth. But also much stuttering is simply a result of having lots to say and not much skill in saying it. Preschoolers have big ideas but their ability to find the right words to express them is only just developing. It’s just hard to get it all out.

Parents of all small children – those who stutter and those who don’t (yet) – should follow these simple rules:

  1. Be patient when your child speaks. Look her in the eye, give her your full attention, and listen calmly. Let your face be relaxed and unworried.
  2. Avoid finishing your child’s sentences for him. Give him time to find the right words and to say what he wants to say.
  3. Don’t correct your child’s speech. Little kids do mispronounce things or use the wrong words. But correcting your child’s speech makes her self-conscious and can contribute to over-thinking her words and make her stutter. If you feel you must guide your child, simply repeat what she said, using the correct form. If the child says, “I saw two mouses,” you can be appropriately amazed and say, “Really? You saw two mice? Where?”
  4. Do not permit others to make a big deal over your child’s stuttering. This includes siblings, next-door neighbors, grandparents and preschool teachers. An accepting attitude is what will help your child most.
  5. If stuttering persists, seems to really be getting in your child’s way or is upsetting to him, or if there is a history of stuttering that has persisted into adulthood among family members, then talk with a speech pathologist for advice.
  6. Most of all, never, ever punish your child for stuttering, never reward your child for not stuttering, and never say something like, “I’ll listen to you when you can talk without stuttering.” Stuttering is not a bad habit your child can overcome if she just works at it. It’s not her fault.

If the causes of stuttering are mysterious, so are the reasons why stuttering goes away. Nothing you do will make it disappear, though things you do can make stuttering more likely or more difficult to overcome. As your child grows in his ability to use language, most likely his stuttering will evaporate.

As is often the case in child development, waiting – just waiting – is the very best response.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.