SFU psychology professor Tanya Broesch in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu.

issues and experts

Communicating with babies — studies show moms and dads can differ in approach

January 10, 2018

Moms and dads living in urban and Western societies tend to differ in how they speak to babies—also known as 'babytalk'—according to two SFU studies led by SFU psychology professor Tanya Broesch. The studies focus on the acoustic properties of speech used by parents.

Mothers were found to alter the pitch of their voice when speaking to infants, compared to when they spoke to an adult, in similar ways across cultures. Meanwhile in a study published in the journal Child Development, fathers from Vanuatu, a non-Western society in the South Pacific, also modified the pitch of their voice in ways that resembled mothers from around the world. However, fathers from a Canadian city did not. Instead of raising their pitch, they slowed down their speech rate—another feature of babytalk.

Broesch is completing two follow-up studies with SFU linguistics professor Henny Yeung and collaborators Elise McClay and Senay Cebioglu. One study looks at the acoustic properties of infant-directed singing across cultures, and another, on parents’ use of “hyperarticulation,” or exaggerated speech, in Vanuatu.  

The studies are part of Broesch’s larger research focus on how early experience shapes development. The research is among the first of its kind to study how parents modify the range and pitch of their voices when speaking to their babies, and gives some insight into how parents approach their verbal interactions with their babies.

“Why do we change our pitch and speech style when we talk to babies?” asks Broesch, a developmental psychologist. “There are several proposed theories of infant-directed speech. I was interested in determining whether those in distant cultures also altered their speech when addressing their babies.  

“Evidence for this suggests that this parenting behavior may be universal – something that is common across diverse societies. It is also interesting to see how these behaviors work across cultures and among primary and secondary caregivers,” says Broesch, adding that the studies show how behavioral traits can vary across distant cultures while still potentially solving similar communicative problems.



• The 2017 study included 30 fathers in Canada and Vanuatu, where Broesch has established a research field lab with locals in the region.  

• The fathers’ study followed an earlier study (2015) of 24 moms from Fiji, Kenya and the U.S., in which researchers recorded and analyzed speech samples. Despite the diversity of languages, all of the mothers shifted the tone of their voices when they spoke to their baby, compared to when they spoke to an adult.

• While fathers from Canada slowed down their speech rate, Vanuatu fathers did not. Broesch surmises this may reflect different aspects of baby talk as fulfilling different needs. For example, babytalk is thought to grasp the attention of infants and facilitate learning. It is also thought to reflect emotional communication – with parents mirroring the higher pitch of their infants. Broesch and Bryant (2017) indicate that the differences reported here may reflect different functions of infant-directed speech. 


Broesch lab: https://www.broeschlab.ca/

Photo: http://at.sfu.ca/xqqvZt


Tanya Broesch, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, 778.782.9680; tanya_broesch@sfu.ca

Mariane Meadahl, University Communications, 778.782.9017; Marianne_Meadahl@sfu.ca