Stop the Baby Talk and Dumbing Down — Why We Use Real Words with Our Kids

I have had a couple of different experiences with L in the past few months that inspired me to write this post about why we use real words with our children instead of using baby talk or dumbing down facts.  Maria Montessori observed that the sensitive period for language is between birth and 6 years of age.  This is a period of time when the child is absorbing EVERYTHING language-related, so what you say to her really matters.

We’ll begin with a trip to the dentist.  I had a routine dental cleaning in December, and I decided to bring L along to help prepare her for her own first cleaning — she would be able to see exactly what would happen so she wouldn’t be frightened when it was her turn.

As I lay in the chair, the dental hygienist looked at L, and in a sickly sweet voice explained, “I’m just going to clean your Mommy’s teefers.”

L looked at me and said, “What did she say?”

The hygienist replied, “I’m just going to shine my light in here so I can make your Mommy’s teefers nice and clean.”

I watched L’s eyes widen in alarm.  I could see the thoughts whirling around inside her tiny head.  What the heck are teefers?!  Where are Mommy’s teefers?  Do I have teefers?  Does it hurt to clean teefers?!

I smiled at L and said, “It’s ok, she’s just cleaning my teeth.”

She immediately relaxed and went about looking at the toothbrushes they give out at the end of dentists appointments.

We don’t use the word “teefers” at home — because it’s not a real word.  We talk about our “teeth” all the time.  We don’t use ANY baby talk in our home — because it’s not necessary.  Children are ALWAYS listening to adults.  They hear the way you talk to your spouse or to your adult friends.  Have you ever been shocked by some nasty vulgarities coming out of your sweet little one’s mouth?  She heard that from YOU.  Children already know the real terms for things, because they have heard you saying them when you discuss things with other adults.  So there’s no point to dumbing things down — it just makes it scary because that is a word they haven’t heard before.

Second story:  We enjoyed a day at the local science museum last month, and one of L’s favorite displays was one filled with animals that live in our area.  There was a snake inside one of the displays, and L quickly spotted a smaller box beside it that contained the snake’s skin.  As she peered through the magnifying glass at the snakeskin, the lady in charge of the exhibit tried to explain it to her.

She said, “Those are the snake’s clothes.”

L replied, “Clothes?  Where?”  She searched and searched for some clothes, but she didn’t see any.

The lady said, “That skin is like the snake’s clothes.  Just like that dress you’re wearing.  When the snake grows too big for his clothes, he takes them off so he can wear new clothes.”

L was becoming pretty frustrated because she definitely did not see any clothes at all, let alone a dress like the one she was wearing.

I said, “Look, L.  That’s snake skin.  When the snake grows too big for its skin, it grows new skin underneath and pushes the old skin off of its body.  They took the old skin and put it into this container so we could look at it!”

I don’t know when the last time you spoke to a toddler was, but they are highly literal.  When I tell L to “turn around” so I can button the back of her shirt, she spins around in a full circle.  When I tell her to “hold that up” so I can see something better, she holds it all the way up over her head.  Using analogies such as comparing a snake skin to the clothes that people wear is a great teaching tool — FOR OLDER CHILDREN.  For toddlers, you need to say exactly what you mean.


When you know how  your child will react to the careless way you say things, you can change your patterns of speech to respect the way she hears you.*  For more on the importance of language at an even earlier age, read Language with Infants — Respect.


*I don’t mean “careless” in a judgmental or negative way — just that it is easy to speak without truly considering how a young toddler will understand your words.  When you speak “carefully,” you take that into account to avoid confusing or scary messages.

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24 thoughts on “Stop the Baby Talk and Dumbing Down — Why We Use Real Words with Our Kids

  1. Love this. I am guilty of baby talking my 3mo all the time but I have always made sure to use the proper terminology for stuff. I just tend to singsong most stuff lol.

    1. Using a singsong tone is great for babies! I just meant that when you are speaking to an almost 3-year-old, you don’t need to speak in a high-pitched voice or anything out of the normal.

      1. Occasionally I attend the going outs of our Elementary class and while I am grateful for the the community opening their doors to our children, I do notice how many adults speak to them in a very sing-songy and patronizing way. I know that people are unaware of what they are doing, but it seems disrespectful.

  2. We always used normal words and spoke to my oldest as we would an adult. We got many comments on how well she talked when she was 3 and 4. When she was around 3 we went on a camping trip with many of our friends and none of them had kids of their own. One of our friends looked at me at one point and said that it was easy to forget that our daughter was only 3 because of it.

  3. Yes yes and yes! We don’t speak in baby words to our toddler and we didn’t speak that way when she was brand new either. It doesn’t allow for her to hear the words as they are meant to be.

  4. I so agree with this. I have never “dumbed” down things to discuss with my girls. Especially now that they are a little older, its amazing what they can comprehend. Great post.

  5. I agree with you 100%. We have used nothing but real language with our child since he was born and he knows more words than most of his ‘friends.’

  6. I agree with you. I have never used baby talk with my little one. She is now a year and a half and knows lots of words and phrases. She is able to express her needs and wants with words.

  7. “teefers”…. (insert eye roll emoji). I couldn’t agree with you more! I’ve never used baby talk to any child that I know and I’ve always gotten criticized for that. Now that I have my own child, we definitely don’t use baby talk and she knows SO many words. Even if she calls things “ba-ba”, we still say bottle because that’s what it is. But we also don’t “dumb” down words either which is the worst! Teefers really shouldn’t have been said, haha. Just teeth… why did that hygienist feel the need to dumb a word down like teeth? Did she think a child wouldn’t understand?! So bizarre… but I completely agree with everything you said!

  8. I love this – we have spoken to both of our children without the use of baby talk from day one. As a result we have a very articulate 3-year-old who is able to express herself to anyone and everyone, and a 6 month old who is beginning to respond positively to words he recognises. I always cringe a little bit when I hear baby talk as I feel as though it’s so confusing for children’s speech and language development. Great post.

  9. The part about your daughter turning all the way around made me laugh out loud since my daughter just did that the other day! My mother has always been a proponent of speaking to kids and using real words from the time they are born. When the doctor asked if my daughter was speaking 10 to 20 words, we were shocked because her vocabulary was easily 50 to 100! Now is the time to be building their vocabulary!

  10. YES! My 3 yr old daughter will correct people baby talking to her. She honestly thinks they do not know they are using incorrect words. Teachers compliment us all the time on her vocabulary and comprehension. I always answer her questions with proper terminology and definitions. She is also quite literal with taking directions too. I have to be mindful to say “face me” or “face away from me”, instead of “turn around”.

  11. We always try to model correct words for our children… My oldest, now six, had a speech delay at one point, and his speech therapist actually said he was harder to understand because his vocabulary was so advanced, people weren’t expecting him to say the things he said. I think it definitely pays off.

  12. I was guilty of using baby talk with my first born and not ssying its related but he ended up with a speech problem. Absolutely agree with you, and never used baby talk again with any of my others

  13. It’s amazing how much toddlers learn to speak, one, two and even three languages. I think this is also why it’s so good to start reading out loud to them from babies because they automatically pick up the rhythm and speech patterns.

  14. It’s so easy for parents to slip into “teefer” talk, because they’re so often just copying the cute things young kids say or trying to make speaking less embarrassing for themselves in public. For example, I know a lot of people who have invented all sorts of silly euphemisms for bodily functions. But I’m with you that, when we talk to kids as though they can understand us, they, well, understand us!

  15. I totally agree with you. We use the real terms with our 1 year old or at least I’m trying. Sometimes I catch myself using “tethers” then have to correct myself. I’m not sure why it’s so in grained in us to use words like “tethers” with little ones.

  16. I could not agree more. We speak to our children using real words and as a result, their vocabulary often surprises many adults.

  17. Yes, yes yes!! I love this. We stopped baby talk and also, when my son asks me a question of ‘why,’ I give him an honest, yet relatable, reason! 🙂 It’s helped tremendously.

  18. I couldn’t agree more!!! I have always been very firm with speaking skills and my children. Being that I studied Speech Pathology and Audiology, its a huge part of my lifestyle. Always speak to your children properly! Its so important for them to see and learn the articulation of your tongue and the words that come out. It is like nails on a chalkboard when I hear others speaking in baby talk to my kids. I get it, they want to play with them, but please, just speak to them properly.

  19. This is such an interesting post. Our little one is almost 8 months, I don’t think it’s even occurred to me to use made up words for anything, but now I’ll pay closer attention to this!

  20. Such an interesting perspective! The “teefers” would bug me, but I’d also know that the hygienist was just trying to make an uncomfortable situation a little more lighthearted. But I totally get it!

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