Fort Worth, Texas,
14:45 PM

Talk to your baby, but not with baby talk

Why this speech therapist prefers ‘parentese’

I’m sitting on the couch watching the NFL playoffs with my toddler son when my wife comes over to join us. “O doe ma chikyweekys!” she says. Let’s be honest, WHO IN THE WORLD UNDERSTANDS THAT? The only person who really knows what that means is my wife.

She loves to use her baby talk with Dominic. As both a speech-language pathologist and a father, I’m conflicted. The sparkle in his eye and wonderful smile just make you melt anytime she says “O doe ma chikyweekys” or any other baby talk. It’s great, I get it, BUT we have to throw in some real words. Who will ever understand him if he says “chikyweekys.” Again, what is that?!?! (I’m just giving my wife a hard time, hopefully she doesn’t read this!)

You may have heard the term motherese and wondered what it was. Baby talk and motherese sound similar, but if you really pay attention there is a difference. Baby talk is the changing of your voice from high to low, but with nonsense words. Hence, “O doe ma chikyweekys” is a great example. But motherese, or parentese, is a bit more sophisticated and much more preferred by me as a speech therapist and as a male/father:

Parentese is:

  • Varying your intonation using a sing-songy voice
  • Slowing your rate of speech down
  • Using short simple phrases with REAL words
  • Having FUN

So if you were showing a baby a puppy for instance, you may want to try it like this: “Oh looook at the puuuuppy. Isn’t it a preeeetty puuuuppy!” As the individual using parentese, you would make sure to put some inflection (raise your voice in a fun loving way) on a few of the important words in the sentence. In this case, you could consider the important words to be “look,” “puppy” (both times) and “pretty.”

Let’s say you were playing hide-n-seek and tickle time with your baby, you could do something like this:

“Where’s my baaaaby? Where’s my baaaaby boy? Oh, I seeee him? ... tickle, tickle.” The important words in this case may be “baby” (both times) and “see.”

Some parents find that using parentese is hard or even embarrassing. I don’t blame them. When I started as a speech therapist, I thought it was awkward and very unnatural. As I used it more, I noticed a huge difference in my interactions with the little kids I was treating. They actually listened to me.

What happens if you don’t use parentese? Does the name Ben Stein mean anything to anyone? “Bueller? Bueller?” He’s that guy. He’s the one in the Clear Eye commercials using a monotone voice. The next time you play with your child, I want you to try a little experiment. While playing, talk in a monotone, Ben Stein-like voice, keeping your pitch the same throughout. Although Mr. Stein can get our attention for those commercials, you will see how quickly you lose your child’s attention.

Just like anything else, talking in parentese takes some practice, but from a child’s perspective hearing parentese is exciting and interesting. As a therapist and as a parent, I need my child’s attention if I want to teach them anything. I have seen how using parentese works in a therapeutic setting and now, with my son Dominic, I’ve seen first-hand how it works at home as well. Using my sing-songy voice, it may sound a little like this ...

Our interactions may sound silly to others, but when Dominic and I are in the moment it’s just plain good old-fashioned fun. I believe Rob Olson said it best when he said “My childhood may be over, but that doesn’t mean playtime is."

About the author

Jonathan Suarez is a speech pathologist at Cook Children's. Speech/language pathologists focus on oral motor, speech, language and communication skills to enhance development, restore function and to prevent disability from pediatric conditions, illness or injury. 

Evaluation, treatment and home programming are available for children with:

  • Feeding and swallowing disorders
  • Articulation, voice, resonance, and fluency disorders
  • Receptive and expressive language disorders
  • Aural rehabilitation/ auditory verbal therapy for hearing loss or cochlear implant
  • Evaluation for augmentative communication devices
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