Does Cooing to Babies Help Them Learn?

2 min read

By Jenn Sturiale

The Rumor: People coo to babies because they're tiny and cute, but it doesn't really serve a purpose

It's an irrefutable law of nature, as powerful as gravity, to which no one seems immune: Put an infant into the arms of even the most grown-up grownup, and soft cooing and baby talk will soon begin. People around the world use soothing pitches and intonations when talking to brand-new beings, regardless of language or culture. Just try to speak to a newborn in a "normal" conversational tone, and see how difficult it is to keep it up. But cooing to babies doesn't really serve a purpose. Or does it?

The Verdict: Cooing to babies is good for their minds and their well-being

Humans use "parentese" as a kind of primal melodic assurance that we're protecting and caring for the tiny person in our arms. Though we may consider it to be a nonsensical non-language that allows us to calm infants before they have verbal skills, research has found that baby talk isn't just soothing. It also helps infants establish language earlier and develop a sense of self and connection to others.

Studies show that babies learn to speak sooner if they're addressed using infant-directed speech -- short, simple sentences delivered with a higher pitch and exaggerated intonation. According to Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of The Whole-Brain Child, it's all about the way humans' pre-language brains function; during the first two to three years of life, he says, "the right side of the brain is dominant in its activity and its growth."

The cooing, nonverbal signals we use to communicate with babies come from the right side of our own brains. "Because babies are really right-hemisphere creatures, a parent who [coos] will be much more effective at creating... shared communication," says Siegel. "If I send a signal to you, you take in the signal and make sense of it and respond to me in a timely manner. The signal I get back gives me a sense that you understood me, and I feel connected to you." Parentese forms the basis of what language really is: The sending and receiving of signals between one being and another.

The repetitive gestures we make with babies also improve their language skills and cognitive development. (At last: an explanation for peekaboo!) When we engage in these types of "mirroring behaviors" with babies, what we're really doing is acknowledging them, making them feel seen and heard. "It's validating their experience in an authentic way," says Siegel. "These interactions of connection create a sense of authenticity and agency in the world." Aww. How sweeeet!