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Why Moms Are Better at Baby Talk Than Dads

May 19, 2015
TIME Health
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Most mothers do it without thinking: cooing to their young children in a sing-songy, high pitched way that seems to help them connect better with their youngsters. But do fathers who spend time with their toddlers do the same?

MORE: Who’s Better at Baby Talk, Mom or Dad?

Mark VanDam, a professor in speech and hearing sciences at Washington State University, wanted to find out in his new study presented at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. While previous studies have looked at how moms and dads interact with their preschoolers, most of these have been in the rather artificial setting of a lab. So researchers led by VanDam strapped recording devices on both parents and their toddlers for an entire day in order to hear what parents were really saying to their children—and how they were saying it—in a more natural setting.

They found that mothers do indeed adopt "motherese" when addressing their preschoolers, but fathers did not—even those who spent more time with their children. In fact, the fathers talked to their young children in the same way they conversed with adults.

MORE: How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

That may be because mothers vary their intonation more and tend to speak in a more infantile way in order to bond better with their toddlers, according to a theory proposed in the 1970s. Mothers are supposed to teach their children how to connect on a more intimate level, and speaking in a more melodic way introduces children to this way of communicating, the theory goes. Fathers, on the other hand, are the bridge for preschoolers to the outside world, and fathers' more varied vocabulary and adult intonations help to familiarize them with this way of connecting with others. "The basic idea is that moms provide the link to the domestic, more intimate type of talk, while dads provide the link to the outside world," says VanDam. "In that sense, moms and dads provide different kinds of experiences that give kids more comprehensive exposure to what kinds of language they need in the real world."

In his present study, both parents lived full time with the child, and in some families, mothers worked outside of the home. VanDam is hoping to extend the study to look at single-parent families, as well as same-sex households, to see if the gender-specific ways of interacting with toddlers stay the same.

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