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In The Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, I have noticed that when some people talk to babies, they raise the pitch of their voice. Apparently it's the same in other cultures.

Apparently this serves some purpose but it may not be entirely clear if it helps the baby (One compelling theory is that we talk to babies this way not so much for their sake, but for our own). Should I join in this pitch-raising stuff or is it OK if I talk normally? Note that I rarely talk to babies, but it may happen when visiting friends or family or when someone brings a baby to work.

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    Related on Parenting.SE: Is baby talk helpful or detrimental? – user58 Aug 29 '17 at 14:18
  • possibly something that evolved from the experience that low sounds (like from a bear or mammoth) frighten babies? If so, what´s with a cat´s purr? – Titus Aug 29 '17 at 14:33
  • What interpersonal relationship are you asking about? The relationship between you and the baby? Or the relationship between you and the baby's parents? – corsiKa Aug 29 '17 at 15:48
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    Many of the answers here completely avoid the title question -- it's about pitch, not content. I'm astonished to see so many upvotes for answers that don't even address the central question. – Glen_b Aug 30 '17 at 2:19
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    So, you are actually asking us something like How do I tell the parents that I would rather not use a higher register when speaking to their baby? – can-ned_food Aug 30 '17 at 3:55
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"Baby Talk" may be beneficial to babies. There is evidence that it can help babies identify words earlier.

To answer your question, though...

Should I join in this pitch-raising stuff or is it OK if I talk normally?

Yes, it is perfectly fine if you talk normally. If you have limited exposure to the children, then any benefit from you using "baby talk" will be minimal at best.

Some parents may actually dislike having people talk to their children using "baby talk", and I've seen parents irately ask others to talk to their child "normally". I have never met a parent who expressed disapproval over someone speaking to their child in a normal tone.

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    And the opposite of the last sentence is also worth noting... I have heard people complain about others using baby talk with their infants... specifically, my mom complains about the overly saccharine way my dad talks to my son all the time. :P – Catija Aug 29 '17 at 16:23
  • @Catija I covered that in the first sentence of the last paragraph :) I'll edit to make it clearer. – Beofett Aug 29 '17 at 16:30
  • Oh, I'm not saying that, specifically... it's more a matter of degree. My mom uses some baby talk with my son... but my dad is over the top annoying about it. You have to find a middle ground :P Well, I guess I sort of said that, so maybe my comment isn't much better... but this one is more what I mean. – Catija Aug 29 '17 at 16:31
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    No sources so not an answer, but my friend who is a speech therapist has said that up until the age of 2, baby talk is very beneficial to introduce a child to the ebbs and flows of language. It's also why parents speak in the 3rd person ("Mommy is going to bed" vs "I am going to bed"). She has mentioned that it's only beneficial up to a specific age. – user2929 Aug 30 '17 at 10:34
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    As a parent I must say I cringe whenever someone tries pitch-raising. And more often than not I experienced this with non-parents... – Tobias Kienzler Aug 30 '17 at 12:31
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When I had my first baby, I also figured that doing the baby-talk was silly and decided not to do it.

Then I started actually talking to the baby, and for whatever reason it's almost impossible to prevent yourself from doing it. (Unless consciously thinking about it, but you don't have much time for that if you're taking care of a baby)

So feel free to try and talk normally, but realize that this isn't learned behavior, it's mostly subconscious. Most people talk to babies with a high-pitched voice automatically, and don't even realize they are doing it.

Either way; the baby is likely to not care a lot, especially if you're not the parent.

The parents probably don't mind much either. I sure wouldn't mind. Not everyone is "good with babies", so most parents are pretty forgiving of people acting differently around them. Plus, most parents are damn proud of their little creation, so unless you're scaring it they probably don't really mind what you do, exactly.

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    But maybe the parents care?! – gerrit Aug 29 '17 at 14:22
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    @gerrit I hope the parents are verbally skilled enough to tell you they don't appreciate the way you talk to their kid ;) – Summer Aug 29 '17 at 14:25
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    @gerrit I found out that "I don't know why you are mimicking a mental disability while talking to my daughter, but please don't." was pretty effective to handle these buggers. – ksjohn Aug 29 '17 at 14:26
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    @ksjohn You should be careful with that. The person could actually have a (non-noticeable) mental disability and thus you may unintentionally offend them. – JAB Aug 29 '17 at 16:44
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    "Either way; the baby is likely to not care a lot..." fMRI studies show babies do care. "These attentional findings are supported by research using neurological and brain imaging methods showing that IDS results in more brain activation than ADS—for example, in infants’ left and right temporal areas (Naoi et al., 2012) and frontal lobes (Saito et al., 2007). IDS elicits increased neural activity (i.e., larger event-related potential responses) from both 6- and 13-month-olds between 600 and 800 milliseconds (N600–800), which is related to attentional processing (Zangl & Mills, 2007)." – anongoodnurse Aug 29 '17 at 16:57
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I've asked myself that same question for a long time.

The people you describe generally use that weird way of talking with babies, animals, people they believe are mentally handicapped and sometimes small children.

After having witnessed that kind of behaviour for years, my best guess is that since they - consciously or not - know that the person or animal they are facing doesn't understand their talking, they try to make their voice entertaining. I believe it is a way to catch the attention of the person or animal and the words are more for themselves or the people around.

As for whether or not you should mimic them, I leave you to make your choice. I personally never do it :

  • I don't talk to animals since they wouldn't understand it, there is no point.
  • Talking that way to people is disrespectful. People with a mental handicap can still understand speech most of the time, and using a weird voice won't help anyway, but nice touch using your the voice you use with animals and babies, very compassionate.
  • Since kids are expected to speak like other adults do, there is no point in using a weird artificial voice and tone with them. Moreover, babies are I the process of learning spoken language. That's far from doing them a favor.
  • Disrespect aside, am I the only one who finds that behaviour frankly ridiculous ?!

Well, do what you want, but you are not alone.

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    I can only hope people don't use their baby-voice on the mentally handicapped, but it wouldn't surprise me. – Erik Aug 29 '17 at 14:27
  • @Erik It became rarer as I grew up, maybe because handicapped people are more and more seen as people. To me, that's what highlights that hypocrisy the best.. – ksjohn Aug 29 '17 at 14:29
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    "I don't talk to animals since they wouldn't understand it, there is no point." Maybe I'm overestimating the extent of this, but A wide range of animals can learn a fair amount of verbal queues and/or get a lot from the tone of one's voice. Especially dogs can, but even things like rats can learn to respond to a few commands. – Shufflepants Aug 29 '17 at 16:59
  • @Shufflepants That's something entirely different. We are talking about people who use weird voices to have entirely unilateral conversations with subjects that don't understand a bit of it. – ksjohn Aug 29 '17 at 17:51
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    @ksjohn Yeah, I guess it's just a bit different with me and my critters since when I'm talking to them, there's quite a bit of a mix of bits that they can understand and bits they can't. – Shufflepants Aug 29 '17 at 17:59
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Since you're asking about how this affects the relationship between you and the parents, let's start with the obvious: you can either do it or not do it.

You're definitely safe if you do it. If they didn't want it to happen they would stop the other parents. So if you see someone doing it, you're probably in the clear to do it.

If you don't do it, what could happen? Well, there's a good chance that nothing happens. I have seen a lot of people be a little awkward around babies, and that's fine. You will probably want to draw out your words a little bit when talking to the baby. "Hheeyyy buuddddy! Ah, that... that is not yours!" Is perfectly acceptable. You don't have to be like "Oh! My! Goodness! The wittle baby is twying to take my cell phone.... oh no mister, oh no you don't! No, no no!"

Now, if you talked to the baby like you would talk to an adult, well that's a little more dangerous. The adults may feel that you're being exceptionally cold - simply put babies change everything in your life, and you have to do things very different when you have a baby. If you talk like there's only adults around, parental instinct may tell them that you're going to act like there's only adults around. Slowing your talking when talking with the baby will show them you're aware of their baby and are willing to adapt your behavior when around the baby.


tl;dr

Full out baby talk is probably fine if you're mimicking what others already do. Slowing your words but not squealing your voice is probably fine as well. Talking full blown adult to a baby is likely to at least attract attention and could possibly be a negative on the relationship.

3

I may be misreading the question but I don't think this is about baby talk (where "fake" versions of words are used) but more about the pitch, in that people tend to talk to babies in a softer higher pitched voice, even if not using baby talk "words" specifically.

So in light of that, I believe you do not need to raise your pitch or change your voice in any way, unless that is what comes naturally to you.

With my own child we do not use any baby talk, but have found that we do tend to talk in a softer, higher pitch than with each other or other adults. We use regular words, although sometimes our sentence structure is simplified and we substitute more basic words where a more complex one might be used with adults. This happened naturally and was not part of any conscious decision on our part, we just want to treat our child in a gentle and loving way.

When it comes to other people, we have several acquaintances and family members who speak to our child (now 2.5 years old) in a fully regular adult voice, with full adult sentences, and who have always spoken to him this way. We find it charming and think those interactions are very healthy for him.

One example of this is our immediate neighbour, a friendly retiree, who is one of our son's favourite people. She has always spoken to him through the fence and carried on a conversation as she would with anyone else, even when he was far too young to talk. Now that he can talk and tell us what is on his mind, we know that he loves this neighbour and he is always very excited when he sees or can visit with her.

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    "Baby talk" generally refers to either of the scenarios you mention in your first paragraph. – Beofett Aug 29 '17 at 16:21
  • There's an interesting book called (Baby) Talk to Me. It covers the science behind Infant Directed Speech. – anongoodnurse Aug 29 '17 at 16:54
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Since you are asking about you relating to parents, I will focus on that. If you speak kindly and actually speak to my child, you are good. The only major mistake you can make in relation to the parents is to act put out by the baby or like their life now is not as good after baby, or ignore baby exists. Parents are often overly excited about our new offspring and as such we often really love if other people care to interact with our offspring, even though they drool, might vomit on you, and might seem like tiny aliens if you aren't used to them. We want to think you will like our children since you like us, therefore you will like all things we make. ;)

I know that all sounds silly, but I swear it's true, at least of all the moms I know. If you like my kids, I automatically like you more. I'd love to say I am not that simple, because I didn't know it would feel that way to me, but it does. Likewise, if I liked you before and you seem impositioned that I have children, or don't respond nicely to them, I am very likely going to like you less after, even if I am not actually upset with you. I think some of it is that your kids are around, a lot, so I see no point pursuing any additional contact with people that see that as less than desirable.

So talk high, or low, baby talk, or normal speech. None of that will matter nearly as much as your general attitude around the baby. :)

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It is absolutely OK to talk normally when "meeting babies". I greet babies I meet with "what up". We spoke normally to our own.

As a parent, parrot-teaching of swear words excluded, I could not care one jot how you select to conduct your exchange of sounds with the baby, that is an affair between you and whoever else can see us who may recognize you. Nor I expect you to feel obliged to strike a conversation with him/her.

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    I'd prefer if you used a greeting more like, "How do you do; it's very nice to meet you." Call me old fashioned. :) – Wildcard Aug 30 '17 at 4:59
  • Another one is "Sorry dude but you peaked already, from here on it's all downhill." – deg Aug 30 '17 at 13:43
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You might have an XY-problem in that what you perhaps want to achieve is feeling natural and at ease when talking to babies, not necessarily avoid using a high-pitched voice per se. But using a high-pitched voice, you feel a bit silly and self-conscious, as if putting on a show.

Now if the advice is "just talk in a normal voice", that's valid to the extent that you are certainly allowed to act natural; but in a strange paradoxical twist, you will become very aware of your behavior, probably start to act natural in the sense of play-acting, and feel self-conscious again.

Whatever you do, it will feel unnatural.

You mention you rarely talk to babies. I guess then your lack of experience is responsible for the awkwardness. I for sure felt awkward with babies before people started to have babies all around me.

My first advice is therefore to have more experience with babies. My second advice is to defuse the awkwardness with humour. Paradoxical situations can be coped with using paradoxical solutions: Either go overboard with baby talk (OK, don't overdo it to the extent that it may look sarcastic), or vice versa exaggerate the serious person talk ("Good afternoon sir, how do you do?").

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Do whatever you feel comfortable with; parents will generally be more impressed if you involve their child in a conversation in some direct way, rather than just talking to the parents about the child as though the child isn't in the room.

Talking in a more animated, excited and varied way than the relative monotone that adults use to converse seems to be a better way to engage a very young child's interest and make them feel happy/feel like responding to you.

Varying the way you sound out your words can also be used as a differentiator as to whom you're talking, if you're of a mind to engage with a baby by looking at it and making faces (babies generally find faces fascinating) but want to carry on a conversation with an adult or mix communicating with adult and baby;

(monotone, looking at the child) Hey, so this is your new arrival huh?
(animated, still looking at the child) Hiya. Hiya. Now then. What you doing? Are you smiling?
(monotone) I bet your washing machine hasn't stopped, ours didn't for about 3 years...
(animated, still looking at the child) Who's a little dribbler? Hey? Your cheeks love that chocolate, don't they? Yes, they do...

It's quite a common pattern, that seems to make the child engaged in about the half of what you're saying that sounds interesting to them, while the adult can focus on the normal sounding mature content without having to process too many of the actual words coming out of your mouth before deciding who the intended audience is.. Parents are generally pretty tired, and personally I'd welcome the mental assist especially as children and babies tend to take the focus of the room attention and parents devote a lot of brain power to operating in "watch and protect" mode.

I know I said earlier, do whatever you're comfortable with (and that's important) but if you're trying to convey a particular impression to the parents, factor in what you know about how they talk to the child; As a parent, I'll generally assume that someone is comfortable around children/has children of their own if they talk to them in baby voice rather than trying to talk adult with them, and if your intention was to put me more at ease that you can handle being around my kids, varying the way you speak to them is a good start. Equally, you might have friends who think you're an idiot for talking to their kids like a pre school cartoon would, and think it's silly. Doing so might thus have the opposite effect on them

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