Study Shows Babies' Babble Is a Critical Communication Tool—Not Just a Byproduct of Their Cuteness

Your babbling little one is running a very important social experiment, and you're a part of it.

Shot of a mother holding her baby daughter at home
Photo: Getty

Your babbling baby isn't just being cute. New research shows they're actually in the middle of a big social experiment, and adults are a critical part of it.

A new study published in Developmental Science earlier this month concluded that infants as young as three to five months understand the sounds they make affect others—even before they learn to talk. How adults respond to these sweet little vocalizations helps teach babies how to react while communicating with others. Previously, experts thought that babies used babbling to work their mouths and use their voices.

"A baby's babbling functions as a tool, to probe the social world and figure out who to pay attention to," corresponding author Michael Goldstein, a professor of psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said in a news release. "Babies don't have unlimited energy or attention. A great strategy is to throw immature behaviors out there and see what comes back."

Participants in the study included two and five-month-old babies, caregivers, and an unfamiliar adult. The unfamiliar adult played with the infants for a minute and then looked at the baby with a neutral—or still—face. They also looked at caregiver responsiveness to babies during unstructured play.

Five-month-old babies increased their vocalization during the still-faced play, while two-month-olds did not. Researchers believe this shows that babies learn to expect responses by engaging with caregivers. When that didn't happen in the experiment, they started babbling more. This behavior is similar to an adult's.

"When the elevator doesn't show up when you think it should, you're likely to press the button more or to press other buttons," Goldstein said. "You're frustrated because your prediction wasn't fulfilled, so your exploratory behavior increases—you do more stuff."

In other words, go ahead and respond to those seemingly nonsensical babbles your new little one is making—you're actually helping them learn to socialize.

Here are some other expert-backed ways to encourage social development:

  • Make eye contact. Can't stop staring at your tiny human? Go ahead and keep doing it—it's building a connection and trust between the two of you.
  • Explore. Take the baby on errands and adventures when you are comfortable. Point things out and refer to them by their name, such as "apples." Not ready to take your child out yet? House tours work, too.
  • Sing. You don't need to be the next Beyonce. Infants learn to associate songs, like lullabies, with comfort.
  • Read. Hearing your voice and looking at photos is enjoyable for babies.

You don't need a teaching degree to help your child learn social cues—your face, voice, and reactions can all impact your little one. Keep in mind that babies develop at different paces. But you can speak with a pediatrician if you're ever concerned with your child's development.

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