Let’s say you’ve been given the super power of peering into a random couples homes in order to observe their “secret couple behavior” from afar. You’d probably see them get into spats over how to load the dishwasher properly, observe them canoodling on the couch binge-watching "The Office," and maybe even catch them throwing down in a good old board game competition.
You’d also probably see them communicating in a way that’s all too familiar, but rarely acknowledged: with high pitched, cutesy wootsy, “I wuv yew” baby voices.
Genuinely curious about the ubiquity of “baby talk” in otherwise adult relationships, NBC News BETTER consulted a relationship psychologist and therapist for the down low on this phenomenon.
They weighed in on the important questions: Is this type of communication a sign of deep or shallow love? Why do so many of us do it? And most importantly, is it conducive to a healthy and thriving partnership?
Why Baby Talk is So Common
Baby talk, for those unfamiliar, encompasses any sort of communication that resembles the way you speak to a baby, child or even pet. Maybe it includes endearing nicknames, exaggerated playful emotions, a shift in tone or demeanor or a jump to a higher octave. Sometimes it consists of affectionate verbal exchanges, sometimes it’s legit coo-ing, and sometimes it sounds like complete gibberish.
According to Dr. Antonia Hall, a psychologist who specializes in relationships, all of the above is exceptionally common in adult romantic partnerships.
“Baby talk signals closeness, is a method of 'mirroring' to evoke positive emotions, and fosters secure attachment with one another,” says Dr. Hall. “It indicates a desire to nurture your partner and the bond between you two.”
She went on to explain that this way of communicating replicates that very first bonding experience we have in this world — usually with our primary caregivers. When a parent speaks this way to their child, it’s a way to establish love, bonding, affection and a sense of security. The same is true when it comes to adult romantic partnerships. Speaking like this is innate and universal to all humans, notes Hall.
Dr. Kathryn Smerling, a NYC-based family therapist, agrees. “Some people might refer to it as couple speak, but the more common clinical term is known as regression, or ‘infant directed speech,’” she explained. “In psychoanalytic theory, individuals revert their behavior to an earlier stage of development, and they may mimic childish mannerisms as well as speech. It is actually very common and most couples resort to it when they want to either display vulnerability or as a way to get closer in a very intimate manner.”
It's almost as if the couple has created their own private language together, Dr. Smerling adds, which makes it feel even more special. Further, it’s a way to bring out that inner child — and we all have one — who craves unconditional love and tenderness.
Hall also points out that we even have a tendency to use sounds that are commonly made by babies, such as “ba,” “boo” and “ma” with our partners.
Couples use [baby] sounds in loving nicknames — babe, baby, boo, bae…We're intrinsically mimicking what we heard from our nurturing parent.
“It makes sense that couples use these same sounds in loving nicknames — babe, baby, boo, bae,” she says. “We're intrinsically mimicking what we heard from our nurturing parent. Even those who might never use baby talk can still find themselves calling their sweetheart 'babe' from time to time.”
So while it may be perceived as childish or immature (and annoy everyone else in line at the coffee shop), baby talk is actually the mark of a healthy and strong partnership.
3 Times to Press Pause on Baby Talk
Now that we know baby talk is a promising sign, we ought to do a bit of due diligence. There are a handful of situations that call for a more straight-and-narrow communication approach. Here are times when you should press pause on the cooing:
- When you’re in public. “Baby talk is usually going to garner eye-rolling from outsiders, so couples may want to limit their bonding behavior in public,” says Hall. Some couples may not care what others think, but it’s best to make sure you and your partner are on the same page (and one of you isn’t embarrassed by the interaction in front of others), and that you’re being respectful of the company around you.
- During a serious conversation. It’s best to avoid using baby talk during serious conversations or when you're fighting, notes Hall. Both scenarios require honest, open adult communication. An endearing nickname thrown in is perfectly okay, of course.
- If your partner dislikes it. Even though baby talk is normal, healthy behavior, it's always good to make sure both people feel good about it. If it annoys your partner, then it’ll backfire and won’t foster bonding. “Notice their reaction if you call them a certain pet name or use a childlike tone,” advises Smerling. “Do they return it with a smile or cringe a little? Are they using baby talk back and returning the favor, or do they continue to talk to you normally?” Look for nonverbal cues to see if your partner’s feeling it, and if that fails ask them straight up. The communication only remains healthy and positive if both parties are on board.
MORE RELATIONSHIP ADVICE
- How one couple saved their marriage by asking this simple question
- How thoughtful communication can improve your marriage, according to a divorce attorney
- Why this marriage counselor says a "good enough marriage" is one that lasts a lifetime
- How the simple act of holding hands brought this couple closer than ever