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Saturday, November 15, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Parenting / Jan Faull

A special way of talking to baby prepares for lifetime of communication

Mothers of newborns speak to their babies in what child-development experts call motherese. What exactly is motherese (or fatherese, parentese or caregiverese)?

It's when parents intuitively coordinate their responses with their baby's — knowing just how and when to talk, smile and coo.

When speaking parentese, caregivers raise their eyebrows, open their eyes wide and talk in a high-pitched voice with over-accentuated wording; intonation is melodic and singsongy. No one teaches parents to speak this way, but loving caregivers readily bring it to the baby-parent relationship.

Around two months of age, babies begin cooing, and soon babbling occurs. At this time, a lovely dance takes place between parent and child where the adult speaks to the baby in parentese and then baby coos or babbles back.

It's the beginning of a give-and-take conversation that develops a human connection and affirms the child's existence. When speaking parentese, mommy or daddy (without knowing it) are actually imitating the baby's own vocal productions. Such imitation is flattering to the baby and urges him to vocalize more and connect further with his parent.

In a speech in Bellevue a few years ago, Andrew Meltzoff, codirector of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, described a rather humorous research study which as yet is unpublished.

The study was conducted to determine if only adoring parents speak parentese or if it is a skill embedded in the psyche of even the most unlikely mother figures.

Researchers put a series of Husky football players in a research laboratory with a baby. No one told the football players why they were there or what they were supposed to do. The Husky was simply present with the contented baby.

After a while, the babies would cry out for attention, needing food, comfort or socialization. At first, each Husky was reluctant to approach the baby; most would look around the laboratory hoping that a parent or other caregiver would attend to the baby. When no one came, Husky after Husky made his best effort to speak to the baby using parentese.

Does this experiment prove that all humans come equipped with the ability to connect naturally with babies? Probably not, but what it does tell us is that people seem to have the intuitive skill to respond to an infant with a special way of talking which involves slowed speech and exaggerated vowel sounds.

As your child grows, there will be times when she comes to tell you of something that's happened. Instead of using coos and babbles, your child will use words to say, "Mommy, my doll's sleeping," or "My teacher's cat had kittens," or "I hate school. I'm never going back again."

It's important in many such situations to remember the initial exchanges between you and your infant when you spoke parentese. For example:

"Your baby's sleeping? We'd better whisper."

"Your teacher's cat had kittens? How many did she have?"

"You hate school, and you're never going back again? It sounds like something terrible happened today."

These loving responses affirm, flatter and engage your child, plus they open up children's minds to think further and solve problems on their own.

Jan Faulljanfaull@aol.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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