How can I best help my baby’s language development? Is it better to use real words or join in with the baby talk? Should I be singing, reading or just talking with my child? Will encouraging baby talk make my baby more creative or hamper her development?

As I said in my post ‘Are bilingual babies smarter?’, we are bringing our daughter , Cerys, up bilingually. We speak Dutch and English at home, she hears the local dialect when visiting her grandparents and now she has started speaking her own language too!

Of course I know that she is just practicing making sounds but sometimes she can look at you so intensely, that you wonder if she is actually trying to convey a message through speech.

I was one of those mums who said she was never going to make silly baby noises and baby words but use proper speech with her child. Singing isn’t my thing so that wasn’t going to happen either. How wrong I was……..


My experience: the first sounds

Cerys started with a sound like “who, who” and was delighted when I answered. I started by telling her who I was, who she was, who ‘opa’ (grandpa) was. Then I discovered that I got much more interaction if I repeated her sounds to her. So, we started a combination, English, Dutch and baby sounds.

This was a phase that I found quite challenging, emotionally. Instead of the upset baby who can only cry to express itself, you suddenly have a baby that seems to be trying to talk to you. It felt as if she was trying to tell me what the problem was but I just couldn’t understand her.
When she is really upset she starts with “mooomooomooom”, which makes everyone around say “listen, she can already say mum” but I know that this is a really bad sign. The clock is ticking and I have a limited time to solve the unknown problem before the baby-bomb explodes!

baby language

The research

In a study published in the journal Infancy in 2014, researchers from the University of Iowa and Indiana University found that engaging in conversation with a baby (instead of talking at them or around them) could help speed up their language development.

The most important thing was to seem interested in what the baby has to say. Eye-contact and responding in ‘real’ language or copying the baby’s sounds doesn’t seem to matter. The baby needs to see that her sounds are eliciting a positive response.


My experience: the repertoire increases

After the who-who phase came the dragon noises. This was really weird, Cerys took a deep breath and then made sounds that made me think of using ‘The voice’ for mind-control in the film Dune. I realised after a while that the deep breath came because I had been reading her a story and wanted to make it exciting, “ooooh” deep breath in “who’s behind the door?”. Once I switched to a different story, she stopped doing the deep breath before ‘speaking’.

She was starting to build up a repertoire of sounds which she could use to have a ‘conversation’. Cerys would make her noises and then pause as if to say, “what do you think of that?” I would then respond, usually asking her to tell me more, then she would continue.

The research

The same study above showed that babies can learn that language (their sounds) are a method of communication. These babies are then more likely to say their ‘words’ to the parent, as opposed to just making a sound out loud.


My experience: bad sounds

The next development was blowing raspberries. Cerys found this sound hilarious. She always smiled when I made the sound so it had been my standard noise for when we were taking cute photos for grandparents. Now she discovered that she can make the sound herself. The funniest moment was when grandpa smiled at her and said what a cutie she was and her response was to stick her tongue out and blow a raspberry!

The ‘screeching’ was an unpleasant time, of course it is also possible to make loud annoying sounds. At first we found it amusing, mainly because she shocked herself when she did it, but after a while it was just awful. So we had to re-condition her. We ignored the screeching and blew raspberries at her instead. The screeching didn’t get a reaction and raspberries did so now screeching has (almost) stopped.

baby talk

My experience: baby language

I said that I wasn’t going to sing with our daughter, I don’t like singing. Funnily enough, the singing came by itself. In fact, I was singing to her without realising that I was doing it. Songs in Dutch or in English, songs from my childhood and songs that I use in school with my class.
I even sang along with the radio (Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ was hilarious, she moved her arms and legs as if she was dancing).

Now Cerys ‘talks’ all the time, she also sings a lullaby (to herself? For us?) before she goes to sleep at night.

I have also caught myself using baby words “shall we listen to mousey’s music”(musical box in the shape of a mouse), “where’s horsey” (her favourite toy). Even worse than that, I use the ‘mummy-voice’, it makes me cringe when I hear it, but I can’t help it.
I talk to the poor child all the time, folding up the washing “oh, what’s this…….it’s a sock! Where’s it’s friend……Hey! Another sock, two socks together!”


The research

In August 2018 a study was published by the University of Edinburgh into use of baby talk to aid language development. Luckily for me, the research shows that using baby words and ‘infant-directed speech’, is beneficial to language development.
Infant-directed speech has a higher pitch and a more melodic, emotionally charged tone that normal speech. It catches the baby’s attention and helps her to grasp the emotional intentions of speech.
It helps the baby to discriminate between different speech sounds and detect boundaries between words in a stream of speech.
Furthermore, the research found that not only are words with repetitive syllables or those ending with an “y” easier for babies to pick up, but using them accelerates language acquisition – including learning more complicated words – as a whole.


Mitsuhiko Ota, Nicola Davies-Jenkins, Barbora Skarabela. Why Choo-Choo Is Better Than Train: The Role of Register-Specific Words in Early Vocabulary Growth. Cognitive Science, 2018; DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12628 

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.


talking to your baby

The next step

It seems that maternal instinct takes over. I can’t help myself singing, making noises and speaking baby language.  Storybooks are also very interesting, although she keeps trying to eat anything made of paper, so it’s a bit tricky at the moment.

Recommendations are that during the first six months, parents hold babies close and look at them while talking to them. Singing will help them tune into the rhythm of language.

Between six and 12 months parents are advised to name and point out things that both they and the baby can see.

I love talking to Cerys and the interactions we have. She really is trying to say something although I can’t understand her yet. After having read the research, I now have the confidence to do this in public too. I don’t care if people give me funny looks, I know that what I am doing is helping her language development and it’s fun!