You are here

"My Baby Made Me Do It!"

Long before my friends and I had kids of our own, we swore we'd never sing those frightful lullabies we'd hear mothers croon. You know, the ones about babies falling from treetops and papas buying them everything from mockingbirds to diamond rings. ("How materialistic can you get?") Being rather late to motherhood, I also had ample opportunity to snigger when my college-educated buddies devolved into baby-talking simpletons within hours of becoming parents.

Of course, I got my comeuppance. Not only did I start cooing to my "suuuu-weeet baaay-beee" the moment I lifted her into my arms, I soon found myself singing every lullaby I'd ever berated, as well as one in German that mysteriously resurfaced from my own early childhood.

Then came the day we cracked open Eva's first jar of baby food. My husband pointed out that I gaped like an oxygen-starved guppy every time I offered her a spoonful. "Try it, buster. You'll see," I replied. Extend spoon, drop jaw: It's physically impossible to do one without the other.

Mercifully for those of us still clinging to some shred of dignity, researchers have begun to uncover what's behind much of our parental madness. And understanding why we do these things can help us maximize their positive impact. Likewise, it can be helpful to recognize when our well-meaning impulses become counterproductive.

Making faces
Of course, you don't have to turn on the volume to recognize a videotape of someone interacting with an infant. We open our mouths and contort our faces into wide-eyed expressions of surprise and delight, all within a few inches of a baby's face. Try this in-your-face mugging with anyone over 18 months and they'll think you're crazy, if not dangerous. Yet infants eat it up.

"Early on, babies have pretty crummy vision," says Colombo. "They start out very nearsighted." So getting up close and exaggerating your expressions can help an infant make out your features against the blur of the world.

Many researchers believe that cartoonish expressions help elicit what they call the mimicry response. "In our studies, we find we have to really exaggerate our facial expressions when we want babies to mimic something like opening their mouths or sticking out their tongues," says developmental psychologist Sybil Hart, Ph.D., of Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. This mimicry, in turn, may help babies learn to form sounds.

"A lot of the time that babies spend looking at our faces, they're actually focusing on our mouths and copying our expressions," she says. Which also explains why gaping like a fish encourages an infant to "open wide" for the next spoonful.

Contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs is working on a book about the body's beneficial bacteria.

Baby talk

Perhaps the best studied  -- though not altogether understood  -- parental behavior is the way we speak to infants. "Parentese" spans virtually every culture and language. Its most conspicuous traits: elevated pitch (as much as an octave higher than normal), drawn-out vowels, and a general slowing of speech to at least half the rate of normal conversation. It's a speech pattern that tends to grate on older kids and adults who aren't parents. So why do infants love it so?

For starters, babies, especially newborns, don't hear well at low frequencies. "Babies are much better at picking out higher-pitched sounds from surrounding noise than lower pitches," says John Colombo, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Kansas.

Even when infants can hear adult conversation clearly, they still show a preference for baby talk, says neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D., of the University of Washington. Nineteen years ago, Kuhl set up a now-classic experiment in which she allowed infants to control whether they listened to parentese or adult-style conversation. The babies consistently preferred baby talk. Moreover, experts believe this would hold true even if the baby talker spoke a language not heard in the infant's home.

Kuhl concluded that the universal exaggeration of vowels and slowing down of speech help babies learn the phonetic elements of speech, perhaps even the particular intonations of what will become their native tongue.

Researchers at the Temple University Infant Lab, in Ambler, Pennsylvania, have noted that parents (at least, English-speaking ones) imbue their parentese with a singsong quality that emphasizes the ends of sentences, and this may further help babies parse speech into its crucial elements, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., coauthor of How Babies Talk. "Anyone who's learned a foreign language knows that the greatest challenge is simply to separate out the words, phrases, and sentences. That's exactly what baby talk does."

Still, experts agree that teaching children how to use words is unlikely to be the whole story. Given that people regularly lapse into baby talk with pets and romantic partners, something about baby talk conveys warmth and caring. "Long before babies can pick out individual words, they pick up on affect," explains Hirsh-Pasek. "You can say something not at all nice to a baby in a friendly tone and that baby will smile and gurgle. Say something nice in an angry tone, and the baby will cry."

This isn't to say that parents who somehow resist the urge to baby talk will produce language-disabled children, says American University linguist Naomi Baron, Ph.D., author of Growing Up With Language: How Children Learn to Talk. "Refusing to talk in a high voice is harmless enough," she says. "What's crucial is that parents and caregivers talk and listen to babies as much as possible, because that's how infants learn how we communicate."

Mommy see, Mommy do

Attentive parents and caregivers often mimic their babies as much as, if not more than, the other way around. Some may snicker at the sight of a big, burly man "goo-gooing" and "wuu-ahhing" with an infant on his lap, but child-development experts couldn't be more pleased.

"It's a characteristic of a responsive parent to realize that a baby has the skills to drive interactions and then allow that infant to take the lead," says Colombo. "When a baby makes a sound and that sound comes back to her, it provides her with a sense of control over her environment." Similarly, following the lead of a baby's actions  -- smiling when she smiles, touching an object she touches, pointing where she points  -- lets her know that she has the power both to communicate and make things happen.

Rocking out
Even more universal than oogling and goo-gooing is the instinct to sway while holding a fussy or sleepy baby. It appears that, in part, gentle motion activates a baby's vestibular system  -- the innate sense that lets us know where we are in space.

Although most people picture rocking a baby as something done side to side (the way a child rocks a doll), at least one study shows that an up-and-down motion proves more effective, especially with newborns. "We find that the best way to console a crying newborn is to hold him upright on your shoulder, then bend and straighten your knees so he moves in a vertical direction," says Colombo.

Singing lullabies

It feels only natural to murmur a soft lullaby as we walk and sway with our babies. Something about an infant in arms elicits song in even the most musically challenged. "There's been a lot of research on music and babies," says Hart. "We know they love it, are soothed and comforted by it, and that they generally prefer a simple melody to something overwhelming like a full orchestra or hard rock."

There's also something about trying to calm an infant that brings back what calmed you when you were small. Perhaps singing mimics the rhythmic sounds of a beating heart and whooshing blood heard in utero. "All we know for sure is that babies need a rich sensory diet  -- a wide array of input to all their senses," says Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D., associate dean at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Ready to fight
Far deeper than any amusingly quirky behavior lies the fierce protectiveness that our children evoke in us. I can vividly recall the night I stood in a neonatal intensive care unit, blocking a six-foot-tall pediatric resident who'd been ordered to learn how to insert an intravenous line using my newborn's tiny veins. The image that comes to mind is that of a lioness standing over her cub. The ferocity of my protectiveness took me by surprise. The same instinct positions us between our children and any real or perceived danger (traffic, strangers, relatives with colds), and motivates us to spend hours covering electric outlets with plastic doohickeys and safety latching every drawer in the house.

In this realm more than any other, something about a baby induces truly primal behavior. Certain aspects of a baby's appearance  -- large eyes, large head relative to the rest of the body, button nose, receding chin  -- trigger both an instant attraction and a sense of protectiveness. It's an instinct that both advertisers and wildlife crusaders exploit to catch our attention and melt our hearts.

It's also what might lead an adult to risk her own safety for that of a baby or small child. On a less dramatic scale, it ensures that parents get up for 3 a.m. feedings despite their mind-numbing need for sleep. Evolutionary biologists point out that an otherwise helpless human baby depends on such self-sacrificing behavior for survival. To we parents who are doing it, though, self-sacrifice is hardly the issue: For us, tending to our babies in the wee hours, babbling to them, singing, and swaying are all expressions of the most important parental instinct: love.