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Is using baby talk with my child good or harmful?

The question: Is engaging in baby talk with my child useful? Am I doing harm in repeating back what he says even if they aren't proper words?

The answer: Engaging in baby talk is not just useful – I believe baby talk is critical to helping young children develop language, social and reading skills.

The first two years of a baby's life are a particularly important time in terms of brain development. Stimulation of the brain at this sensitive age, by exposing children to spoken language, leads to them developing larger vocabularies and stronger reading skills when they are older.

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The good news for parents is that young infants seem to be particularly responsive to "baby talk." Even newborns have the ability to recognize and respond to baby talk. When I encourage new parents to use baby talk, I am referring to the style of speaking that people usually use with infants that involves talking slowly in a high-pitched, musical (often referred to as "sing-song") voice, often accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions. Sentences should be short and simple and involve repetition (think Dr. Seuss – "I will not eat them in a house…").

Children respond not only to the quantity of verbal speech that they are exposed to, but also the quality. As such, using nonsense words like "coochie-coo" and "I wove my wittle wascal," while probably not harmful, is not nearly as helpful as using normal language in a repetitive, interactive fashion.

The one exception to this rule is when parents echo the vocalizations that they hear from their infants. For example, repeating early sounds like "baa-baa" or "paa-paa" back to your baby will encourage your child to continue to verbalize, and also helps introduce the notion that normal speaking and communication is a to-and-fro activity involving both making a sound and listening for a response.

Parents looking for ideas and inspiration need only look to children's books for examples of developmentally appropriate words in repetitive, playful sentences. Exposing children to books right from birth is associated with many positive outcomes, including stronger reading skills, improved listening ability and longer attention span.

Parents often worry that speaking in a childish voice to their young infant will lead to their child continuing to speak in a "baby voice" when they are older. Fortunately this does not seem to the case. Most often, both parents and child naturally give up speaking in baby talk once the child hits the toddler stage.

I also remind parents that children's television shows and educational videos are no substitute for direct person-to-person communication. While children 3 and older can learn concepts from children's shows like Sesame Street, this does not seem to be the case for infants and toddlers. This is one of the reasons the Canadian Pediatric Society discourages television watching for toddlers less than 2.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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