What a cuuute baaaaby. Does baaaaby want to plaaaay? It just feels natural to talk baby talk to babies, but is it a good idea?

It is clear that infants like listening to baby talk better than adult speech, and now new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Wisconsin confirms that it actually helps them learn language faster.

Babies in the study were able to identify specific words from nonsense sentences more quickly when the sentences were delivered in baby talk than when they were delivered in the more monotone cadence characteristic of adult speech.

Lead researcher Erik D. Thiessen, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University says the infants learned words about 25 percent faster when exposed to baby talk.

“Parents often hear that if they want their infant to grow up speaking like an adult they should talk to them like they are adults,” Thiessen tells WebMD. “But it turns out that talking to babies in this special way, as mothers have been doing for centuries, is pretty effective for learning language.”

Simple Sentences, Clearly Spoken

Known in language development circles as infant-directed speech, baby talk is characterized by short, simple sentences delivered in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. Vowels are also dragged out, and each word of a sentence tends to be clearly spoken.

Thiessen says baby talk and the exaggerated body language that goes along with it tends to grab an infant’s attention. And the simple sentence structure and slow word delivery make it easier for infants to learn.

“It isn’t that babies can’t learn from adult-directed speech,” he tells WebMD. “They will figure it out eventually no matter how they are talked to. They just tend to learn a little faster with infant-directed speech.”

The findings may also help explain why adults have so much trouble learning a second language, even though they are able to speak their own language effortlessly, Thiessen says.

Adults tend to learn individual words of a new language easily. But they often have trouble understanding the language when it is spoken by native speakers because words tend to run together and no longer make sense.

“There may be something about the simplified way that people talk to infants that makes it easier to break into a new language and figure out what is going on,” he says.

Talk Silly to Baby

The new research should help calm the fears of parents who have heard that baby talk could slow their child’s verbal learning, says researcher Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD.

Michnick Golinkoff directs the Infant Language Project at the University of Delaware and is co-author of the books How Babies Talk and Einstein Never Used Flash Cards.

“We know that infant-directed speech really helps babies break up the speech stream to find the individual words,” she tells WebMD. “Parents should feel comfortable talking silly to their babies. Babies love it and it helps them learn.”

By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Thiessen, E.Infancy, March 2005; vol 7: pp 53-71. Erik D. Thiessen, PhD, assistant professor, department of psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, professor, School of Education, University of Delaware, Newark, Del.