Babies babble to hear their own voices

A University of Missouri research tries to find out the reason behind children talking gibberish, and how it affects behavioural development


The research aims to point out that infants are not just passive recipients of what others say to them. Photo: iStockphoto
The research aims to point out that infants are not just passive recipients of what others say to them. Photo: iStockphoto

Washington: Babies’ repetitive babbles, such as ‘dada’ or ‘baba’, are primarily motivated by the infants’ ability to hear themselves, according to a new study.

Babbling sounds with consonant-vowel repetitions, such as ‘dada,’ are common among infants once they reach 8 months old; however, these sounds are not prevalent among infants who have profound hearing loss - that is, until they receive cochlear implants, researchers said.

University of Missouri (MU) research shows that infants with profound hearing loss, who received cochlear implants, soon babbled as often as their hearing peers. “Hearing is a critical aspect of infants’ motivation to make early sounds,” said Mary Fagan, an assistant professor of communication science and disorders in the MU School of Health Professions. “The fact that they attend to and learn from their own behaviours, especially in speech, highlights how infants’ own experiences help their language, social and cognitive development.”

“This research doesn’t diminish the importance of the speech that babies hear from others — we know they need to learn from others — but it raises our awareness that infants are not just passive recipients of what others say to them. They are actively engaged in their own developmental process,” Fagan said.

Fagan studied the babbles of 27 hearing infants and 16 infants with profound hearing loss before and after they received cochlear implants. Cochlear implants are small electronic devices embedded into the bone behind the ear that replace some functions of the damaged inner ear.

Within a few months of receiving cochlear implants, the number of babies who produced repetitive vocalisations increased, the number of vocalisations that contained repetitive syllables increased, and the number of actual repetitions in the string, such as ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba’, increased, Fagan said.

“The research tells us that infants are motivated by hearing the sounds they produce, so these sounds are functional in some way,” Fagan said. “Research conducted by others supports the idea that babies form mental representations of their own babbles, such as these strings of syllables, which may be the reason that infants tend to use the sounds that they have babbled in their first words rather than the sounds that are most common in the speech that adults use with them,” Fagan added. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.