It can be super annoying when your five year old, or even seven or eight year old child talks like a baby. How can you respond to baby talk in an older child? Here's why kids sometimes resort to talking like a baby as well as tips and ideas about how to handle it when your big kid goes back to baby talk.
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Baby Talk in Older Kids – Reader Question
My son and his cousin are best friends (he’s 7, she’s 8). When they get together they get into this really annoying baby talk that they talk in. It seems to fuel them being rude to others around them and they kind of get stuck in the baby talk mode once apart too and will try talking in that voice to us as parents. It drives us all nuts.
Is there anything I can do aside from just keep asking them to speak to me in a normal voice?
Understanding Baby Talk
Hi there, I’m Amelia and I’m really glad to have a chance to get curious about this with you. Solving awkward and uncomfortable family issues is a big part of what I do as a Behaviour Analyst, so I’ll share what I know and try to figure out how everyone can get what they need in this situation.
First of all, what is “baby talk”? Baby talk might refer to the limited vocabulary and mushy pronunciation of a toddler, but adults definitely do it too. Right from day one, new parents and caregivers tend to use a sing-song voice, a cheerful tone, and simplified or silly words when they communicate with youngsters. “Baby talk” (also called “infant-directed speech”) helps babies to tune into their caregivers and develop their language skills.
As children grow, they learn to speak more clearly and in more complex sentences, and their parents tend to use less “baby talk” too. By the age of seven or eight years old, most English-speaking children have stopped making the usual errors of pronunciation.
Baby-talk is so natural that it’s hard not to start cooing when anything adorable comes into view. As I wrote this, I worried that I might be the only one who squeaks and fawns over my neighbor’s dog, but there have been plenty of studies that describe pet-owners using a similar tone with dogs of all ages (and as a bonus, the dogs appear to enjoy it!)
“Baby talk” also happens sometimes between couples, and I was shocked to learn that as many as two-thirds of couples use baby talk as a romantic form of communication. These examples of parents, pet-owners and couples do have one thing in common though: “baby talk” seems to happen most often when people are demonstrating intimacy and affection.
Why Do Adults React To Baby Talk in Older Kids?
Before I explain why your older child might be using inappropriate “baby talk” and what you can do about it, let’s talk for a minute about how you’re feeling. As you mentioned, you’re experiencing the baby talk as “really annoying” and other adults agree that “it’s driving [you] all nuts.” I want to emphasize that you’re definitely not alone. Baby-talk can sometimes have that effect on people; advice columns are full of complaints from people using words like “disgusted” and “sickened” when they hear others using baby-talk. Strange, isn’t it, that baby-talk can be such a sweet sign of intimacy and also an intense source of irritation?
The use of “baby-talk” out of context just feels “inappropriate” when it happens out of the usual context, and perhaps that is the source of your frustration. However, as a parent, there might even be another reason why baby-talk is really getting under your skin. Maybe “baby talk” feels like a regression to you. In our role as caregivers, we are usually focused on helping our child get to the next milestone, so we want to go forward, not backward. Even when it is make-believe, when we perceive something as regression behavior this can be uncomfortable.
Baby Talk in Older Kids: Why Does It Happen?
So, why do older children use baby-talk? In most cases, I suspect that there are two possible reasons, and they are both extremely, exasperatingly natural. As you read earlier, baby-talk is used to communicate affection, and it also triggers disgust when used outside of the “appropriate” context. Maybe as you read these possible explanations, one of them will ring a bell.
Communicating affection and intimacy
In some cases, baby-talk might be another way to say: “Remind me that you’re my protector. I need some extra tenderness. Scoop me up and keep me close.” One parent recently shared this story with me:
My girls spent several years often doing the game of wrapping themselves up with a blanket, closing the bedroom door and knocking on it, and then I was supposed to open the door and say, “Oh, is it a new baby in here?” and then unwrap the blanket, and take care of the baby.
It might seem silly to think that your child would opt to request affection indirectly instead of “using their words,” and some parents worry that they are being manipulated when their child uses “baby talk.” However, I’ve met plenty of adults who struggle to find the words when they need reassurance, so I assume that children struggle in the same way. If you suspect that your child is using baby-talk as a way to invite you closer, I’d suggest just playing along. Be as sugary as you can possibly stand. Lavish them with snuggles positive attention. They won’t stay babies forever (I promise!)
I have heard advice from other very kind and sensible people, advising parents to redirect their children and coach them to express themselves in a more appropriate way. I don’t think there’s any harm in trying, but if redirection doesn’t work, then you might want to test out my advice too. I suspect that there are some children who would express themselves more appropriately if they could. When swept up in overwhelming emotions that can come up in transition to a new growth phase, or a big change like a younger sibling they might just lose the capacity to ask clearly for what they need, and so this kind of cuddle sooths and to fills their cups in the meantime.
Testing boundaries and taboos
Now that we’ve described closeness and affection, let’s walk over to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum: disgust. We feel disgust in response to things that feel somehow wrong or unhealthy. We express disgust when we teach our children to avoid things that are dirty. Inevitably, our children discover the joys of “potty humor” and we spend the next few years trying to convince them not to replace every other word of Jingle Bells with variations on “poop” or “butt,” because being gross is hi-lar-i-ous. Children use this kind of humor to delight their peers (“Tee hee hee, he said fart!”) and also to irk their parents. The bigger their parents’ disgusted reaction, the better!
For some children, a “baby voice” is a playful way to test out some boundaries and do something “inappropriate.” After all, baby voices in an unexpected context often trigger a grumpy reaction in others. In your letter, you mentioned that your son and his cousin tend to get a little carried away when they use their “baby voices” together, being rude to the people around them. This kind of silly rebellion is developmentally quite typical, but it is definitely irritating too.
Responding to Baby Talk
Fortunately, now that you have a better understanding of where this is coming from, you can choose how you would like to respond. Here’s my best advice:
- Don’t be too serious about it. You’ll end up being the “straight man” in their comedy routine.
- Don’t berate them about acting their age, or tease them for acting younger. You might be inadvertently teaching them to look down on younger people, or people with developmental disabilities.
Ideas to Try:
- If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Ask them how old they are, and play along. It’s hard to be a rebel and stick it to the man when your parents are offering you applesauce.
- Being a “baby” isn’t an excuse to treat others unkindly, so if your child is using this scenario to be rude to others, consider what you would do for an unruly toddler. Perhaps they need some quiet time? Do they need a cuddle? If your “age-appropriate” parenting strategies are less effective when the kids are in “baby mode,” try going back to what used to work.
- Lean in. Commit to the bit. You could listen carefully and repeat their words while considering them seriously, e.g., “Hmm, I’m not sure if we have any jooshy wooshy. Dear, did you put jooshy wooshy on the shopping list?”
- Set a timer. Tell the kids something like “Okay, if you guys want to talk to us in silly voices, that’s fine, but I miss your regular voices, so baby-talk all you want until the timer goes off.” This approach might give you a break, and if you can tolerate the baby talk for a while, then the fun of rebellion is spoiled.
When should I be worried about my older child’s baby talk?
- If your child consistently uses language that seems too simple for their age, or if they have difficulty pronouncing certain speech sounds after the age of eight years old, then you might want to have an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist to see about a language delay.
- If you notice an overall decline in your child’s language skills, you should definitely bring this to the attention of your family doctor, so they can assess your child's hearing, and overall health and development.
- If your child is able to switch back and forth between a “baby voice” and their usual voice, and they can make themselves understood at school and with people outside the family, then I think it’s safe to assume that the “baby talk” is more of a playful habit than a worrisome symptom.
- On the other hand, if your child is resorting to “baby talk” in stressful situations or after a big change, and your usual reassurance and comfort isn’t helping, you can seek out help from a mental health professional. These experts can help your child express their distress, cope with anxiety, or process difficult experiences and traumatic events.
To sum up, here are the big take-aways I hope you will remember.
- “Baby talk” isn’t just for babies; it’s often used to show affection by adults (weird, right?) It’s very common for adults to be irritated by “baby talk,” especially when it’s used out of context.
- Children sometimes use “baby talk” to signal a need for closeness, and it’s okay to respond to that emotional cue. If your child is ready to learn more age-appropriate ways to request, you can coach them to do that too.
- “Baby talk” is socially inappropriate when used out of context, so children also might be testing out these social rules, finding the humor in this kind of mild rebellion.
Once you understand why your older child might be using “baby talk,” it will be easier to decide on your response. Perhaps your child needs a little extra sweetness, so you can build that into your day, and come up with other ways for your child to ask for it. Maybe your child is just being silly, so you will decide whether to join in or strategically shut it down (without losing your cool.)
Okay, I hope that helped! I’d love to hear stories from other parents who have been through the same dilemma; maybe they have some creative solutions too!