Parents Everywhere Talk to Babies the Same

Major new study documents sing-songy 'parentese'
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 25, 2022 8:59 AM CDT
Parents Everywhere Talk to Babies the Same
   (Getty / Prostock-Studios)

Researchers have managed to find something that societies of all kinds—from hunter-gatherer groups in the Amazon to affluent cities in the West—have in common. We talk and sing to babies in a similar way, according to what is being described as a landmark study in Nature Human Behaviour. As the Harvard Gazette puts it: "If you’ve ever talked to a baby, you’ve likely raised your pitch, made silly sounds, or used a sing-song voice. You’re not alone." Dozens of scientists analyzed about 1,615 voice recordings from 410 parents on six continents, a study that spanned 21 cultures and 18 languages, per Cosmos. The upshot: The manner of speaking they dub "parentese" appears to be largely universal.

“We tend to speak in this higher pitch, high variability, like, ‘Ohh, heeelloo, you’re a baaybee!’” principal author Courtney Hilton, a Yale psychologist, tells the New York Times. The study accomplishes the rare feat of establishing an aspect of human behavior than transcends culture, notes the Times. It suggests that something important is going on here, despite the silly nature of the sounds, and the study provides for a major starting point for future research to dig in. For example, the exaggerated vowel sounds of parentese likely make it easier to babies to develop communication skills. And its more soothing nature may help "regulate the baby's emotions," Hilton tells NPR. What's more, babies seem to like it, notes Cosmos.

While the overall behavior is similar across cultures, researchers also found general differences. For examples, parents in Western societies such as in Toronto and Wellington, New Zealand, tend to have more pronounced parentese—with a higher pitch in particular—than in more remote societies such as the Achuar people of Ecuador in the Amazon, says Hilton. Summing up: “We’re not trying to claim that all societies have infant-directed song or infant-directed speech, but we do now know that when people ... sing to their infants or speak to their infants, they tend to do it in the same way,” says another author, grad student Cody Moser of the University of California, Merced. “That is very interesting and a new finding.” You can test your own skills via this audio component of the study. (Read more babies stories.)

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