Smart Baby

All about infant and child development.

What Do Babies Want to Hear? Again and Again...

Dr. Tricia Striano on getting your baby to pay attention.

Some of the best infant development studies are inspired by parents with great insight and first hand experience with babies and children. One question that I recently received from an expecting parent from London led to many new ideas to test in the laboratory. We often hear parents call their infants by name, repeating the name over and over again. The question is, do babies become bored with their own name and begin to treat it like ‘white noise' or does repeating the infant's name intensify the significance of the name?

The short answer to this question is that we do not know exactly, given that it has not been tested directly in the lab. However, different lines of research help us to address this question. Most likely babies do not become bored hearing their own name as long as the name signals communication. When babies hear their name in the context of "dyadic" or face to face interaction, likely the cue signals something like, "Hey, baby, let's talk!" Given that communication is so important for pre-verbal babies, hearing their name is likely a sound that will capture attention.

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It is true that when babies see the same object or event repeatedly, they eventually become bored and habituate to the stimulus. Of course, the same happens when babies hear the same words repeatedly. If the baby repeatedly hears his own name and communication does not follow, he will likely habituate and eventually ignore this word. However, given that babies are so eager to communicate, calling their name in natural social contexts is likely a great way to signal that you want to talk and interact.  A baby's name is a unique stimulus and a wonderful, familiar and salient communicative signal.

Imagine calling the baby by name and then speaking to the baby with adult-like speech. Most likely the baby would become bored and turn away because the adult signal is more difficult to interpret and even more difficult to understand. Speaking in "infant-directed speech" which includes exaggerated intonation, repetition and high pitch may help babies to communicate and learn language.

Babies are very good at picking up patterns and learning the structures of interaction and even languages. Dr. LouAnne Gerken from the University of Arizona has recently described some new research findings in "Language is an interesting puzzle for babies" published at HowBabiesLearn.com. This study highlights the ways that babies attend to different language structures. Not all sounds, words, and language structures are treated alike by babies.

Also, published this month at howbabieslearn.com, Dr. Casey Lew-Williams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Infant Learning Lab describes techniques parents may use to help words "pop out" for babies. Lew-Williams writes, "As babies accumulate lots of play time with caregivers and hear a diversity of sentences and words, they will go from being lost in a sea of sounds to showing remarkable comprehension abilities."

Babies are always picking up new information and searching for meaning and communication. Interacting with babies often begins by calling the baby by name and speaking in "baby talk" or infant-directed speech. Infant directed communication helps babies to pay attention, to pick up regularities in the world and even to learn language.

Tricia Striano, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Hunter College in New York. She is a researcher of infant social and cognitive development and is the director of howbabieslearn.com.

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