When Your Baby Talks, Here's How to Listen to Help Them Learn

A new study shows that babies are able to change their learning environments by babbling to adults. And when parents talk back, there are major developmental perks.

mother talking baby talk to baby with speech bubble
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (1).

You may think your baby has you wrapped around her little finger, but you have no idea. A recent study from Cornell University's Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years (B.A.B.Y.) Laboratory showed that parents unconsciously alter their speech when responding to their baby's babbling providing evidence that babies can shape their learning environment.

The study looked at a sample of 30 mother-baby pairs who were monitored while playing in a controlled environment for 30-minutes on two consecutive days. The babies wore overalls with wireless microphones and were also recorded by three cameras during their play sessions. The researchers measured parents' vocal responses, word and sentence length, and word choice when they responded to their infants' vocalizations.

The results of the study showed that parents used smaller sentences and words and fewer unique words in response to their babies' babbling but not when just speaking to the baby. For example, a mother might say, "You brought me a toy, didn't you?" when their baby brings them a toy, but if the baby is vocalizing during the exchange, the mother's response might be something more like "That's your bear."

More importantly, the study proved that babies' whose mothers' used shorter sentences and fewer words on the first day of the study were more likely to exhibit learning of new sounds the second day, suggesting that by vocalizing to caregivers, infants are actually modifying and improving their ability to master new sounds.

"Infants are actually shaping their own learning environments in ways that make learning easier to do," said lead researcher Steven Elmlinger in an interview with the Cornell Chronicle. "We know that parents' speech influences how infants learn—that makes sense—and that infants' own motivations also change how they learn. But what hasn't been studied is the link between how infants can change the parents, or just change the learning environment as a whole. That's what we're trying to do."

Baby coos and babbles then are more than just cute, they're vital to improving the infant's learning potential. "It's not meaningless," Ermlinger said. "Babbling is a social catalyst for babies to get information from the adults around them." And while our babies may not be making time machines like Stewie Griffin or running clandestine corporations like Boss Baby, they're definitely smarter, more aware, and more in control than we give them credit for.

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