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Words to Love By

"Hellooooo, you pwitty wittle baaaaaaby!" New parents automatically lapse into a whole new language as they gaze into their little ones' eyes. This special way of talking  -- which language experts call "parentese"  -- is marked by short sentences, elongated vowels, a musical lilt with higher high pitches and lower low tones than our normal voices, and sometimes includes cute mispronunciations. While you might feel a little silly speaking this way, you can relax knowing there are several good reasons to do it.

He's Heard It All Before

"Parentese is attractive to babies because it's so familiar," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Temple University who specializes in language development. "Higher pitches can get through all the other sounds a baby hears in utero more clearly than lower ones, so high, singsongy voices  -- especially Mom's  -- really capture a baby's attention." And swings from high to low help hold it because they're more compelling than regular speech.

Preverbal Boost

While it might not sound much like real conversation to adults, parentese actually gets babies on the road to understanding language and speaking it themselves. By slowing down and pronouncing words more distinctly, we help infants hear the parts of each more clearly  -- especially the vowels.

That doesn't mean you have to pronounce every single word exactly right. Since babies are mostly reacting to the melody of what you're saying, not the words, mispronunciations like "bwankie" won't stunt their language development, says Hirsh-Pasek.

Sweet Rewards

When you speak to your baby, his eyes meet yours, his face lights up, and he wiggles his body in excitement. "That kind of interaction helps the two of you connect," says Kathleen Whitmire, Ph.D., chair of the communication disorders department at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. "It's one way that you deepen your emotional bond."

Bye-Bye Baby Talk

As children near the end of their first year, parents naturally begin to phase out baby talk. But it's perfectly okay to use your child's cute but incorrect pronunciations  -- like "bebkiss" for breakfast and "teefies" for teeth.

It's pretty tough to hurt your child's speech development, says Hirsh-Pasek. As long as you talk to him in a way that engages him, you'll give him just what he needs to become a sparkling conversationalist.

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