Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“Baby Talk” and the Adult Brain

By Taryn Barrette, RD

The following is a "guest post" from our ever-energetic Taryn Barrette. Though not yet a parent herself, Taryn is a registered dietitian (and proud cat-owner) on our staff who is rapidly becoming a baby behavior specialist.

I always laugh when I hear my boyfriend talk to babies. He’ll say things like “Hello, George. How are you doing today?” in his most grown-up, monotone voice.

Then I chime in, without even thinking about the way my voice changes, with something closer to “Oh heh-woe wittle Georgie-Worgie!” I talk to our cat like that too. How is it that we can flawlessly switch from mature grown-up conversation to cooing, baby-talk gibberish without batting an eye? Well, it could be that our brains react differently in the presence of preverbal infants. In a new study, neurologists showed how mothers’ brains change in response to “baby talk.”

In an earlier post, we talked about how babies respond to “baby talk” and that the repetitive, articulate, higher-pitched “motherese” draws babies’ attention and helps with infant speech and emotional development during their first year of life. We talked about how younger infants make sounds to communicate, and then starting at around 6-10 months of age, babies begin to use signs along with sounds. Eventually, towards the end of the first year, babies start to use words. So we know that “baby talk” is vital for infant development, but how is it beneficial for parents and how does it help parents’ relationships with babies?

In a study conducted in Tokyo, Japan, researchers investigated differences between Infant-Directed Speech (IDS - aka “baby talk”) and Adult-Directed Speech (ADS - aka the monotonous voice my boyfriend uses with baby George). IDS shares similar characteristics with emotional speech, which is used when adults communicate emotions to other adults. Think of cooing, “I love you” to your significant other or using a higher-pitched, animated “Congratulations!” when your sister got promoted. Personality traits (i.e. extroverted vs. introverted) and gender can both affect the way and amount that adults use emotional speech; therefore, these differences may affect how adults utilize “baby talk” with their infants as well!

The researchers used voice recordings of 256 words that were either spoken in IDS or ADS. Study participants were first time moms and dads of preverbal infants, mothers of toddlers and mothers of school-aged children or adults without any children. The participants’ brain activity was measured while they listened to the voice recordings.

The researchers found that the mothers of preverbal babies were the only group who showed activity in the language center of the brain when exposed to “baby talk.” So, moms with preverbal infants who were speaking “motherese” were more likely to be processing “baby talk” as a form of language than mothers whose children were older or fathers of those same children. That could explain why my boyfriend has no interest in “baby-talk.”

The scientists also found that extroverted mothers (women who are naturally more outgoing) were more likely to use “baby talk” with their infants. The more a mother uses IDS, the more her language centers of the brain are activated and the better she gets at using and processing “baby talk.” So, moms: keep talking to your babies! Even if other people give you a hard time, you are helping to improve your baby’s speech and at the same time molding your own brain to become more in tune with baby talk.

Next time: Let’s Talk about Dads!

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