When preschoolers insist on using baby talk

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Our daughter is an independent and competent preschooler. She can dress herself, set the table, help unpack the dishwasher, write her name, and could herd goats (if we asked her to … and if we had goats).

She was also an early talker – probably trying to get a word in amongst her older brothers. Her speech has been developmentally on par and clear to understand from the moment she first ordered her older brothers to "GO AWAY!"

Despite her proficient use of language, she loves to slide into baby talk. Not the kind of cute mispronunciations toddlers are renowned for, but the fake voice and deliberate bastardisation of words. "Mummy, can I pwease have a dwink?"

It drives me mad. 

We have tried many approaches to manage the baby talk. We attempted the calm and reasonable: "You're a big girl now, speak properly please." To which she rephrases her question using human language only to skid back into the baby talk the next time she speaks.

We've tried ignoring it on the grounds that it is attention-seeking behaviour. Unfortunately the sound of it irritates me so much I can barely bite my tongue.

Melbourne-based paediatric speech pathologist Kirstie Calder says baby talk is actually quite common amongst this age group, and agrees that it can be very trying. But is it a developmental issue?

"Speech pathologists are concerned with communication impairment, so children with typically developing language skills who choose to use baby talk fit into the area of pragmatics – the social use of language," Kirstie explains.

It was also suggested that the use of baby talk may be a regression technique, particularly in times of change in a child's life. My daughter will be starting school, so this significant step into more responsibility could viably be her reason for using baby talk as a communication method.

"Speech pathologists view all behaviour as communicative, and are keen to think about the function or purpose of it as a way of sending a message," Kirstie says. "So those who are hearing baby talk, which is the choice to revert back to a more immature speech and language pattern, may like to consider the purpose of the behaviour."

Another explanation for adopting baby talk may be a friend of the child speaking that way so they're imitating them.

It could also possibly be a short phase during which the child tests out the reaction of those they are talking to.

So what can we do to help this phase move along?

Kirstie suggests the following:

  • Sometimes children will use 'baby' words when they've outgrown them. You can start by letting them know the more appropriate 'big boy/girl' words – remind them often.
  • If your child is copying a friend who uses this kind of language, encourage them to be themselves (e.g. "Be yourself, Archie, you don't need to be 'Ben'").
  • The child may not be totally aware they're doing it for attention, but the need for positive or negative attention could be the cause. Like with whining, children usually evoke a quick reaction from parents when choosing baby talk.
  • Discussing your expectations – explaining that baby talk will be ignored, and that you'll only respond to "school girl/boy talking" – will lead to more consistent and mature ways of speaking in the future.

"Of course if parents are concerned about language development being on track, they may want to check in with other professionals familiar with their child such as educators at daycare or preschool, and then seek advice from a speech pathologist if still concerned," Kirstie adds.

So as we prepare our little one for her first day of school, we'll attempt to put some of these strategies in place so she can leave her baby talk behind to embrace a new and exciting world of learning and "big girl" talk.

For more information about the ages and stages of children's speech development, visit Speech Pathology Australia for fact sheets and contact information in your state.