Will the Couple Who Baby-Talks Together Stay Together?

Will the Couple Who Baby-Talks Together Stay Together?

Will the Couple Who Baby-Talks Together Stay Together?

You probably know someone whose voice goes up an octave whenever they’re talking to a baby or even a pet. Maybe they say things like “night-night,” “boo-boo,” or “tummy,” their high-pitched intonation leaving the words practically ringing in your ears. But what about someone who uses the same kind of cutesy language with their adult partner, perhaps saying “I wuv you” or calling them pet names like “Bubba” or “Honey?” As it turns out, baby talk in adult relationships can be an indicator of intimacy and closeness—so long as both partners are on the same page about its usage.

Experts In This Article

Typically, baby talk refers to the “simplified way adults speak to infants and young children,” says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD. “It is characterized by a higher pitch, slower tempo, exaggerated intonation, repetition of words and phrases, and simplified vocabulary.” But while it may sound silly, it has a key purpose: Simplified words are easy for infants to recognize and are effective at holding their attention1, which can support their early language learning and development2. Plus, the melodic tone and rhythm of baby talk conveys warmth and reassurance, which helps strengthen the infant-caregiver bond, says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC.

Given that adult relationships also hinge on the formation of a strong emotional bond, it’s not so far-fetched to think that baby talk in those relationships might help strengthen them, too.

Why do adults use baby talk in relationships?

Similar to how a parent might interact with their baby, couples may use baby talk to build intimacy and deepen their emotional connection, says Dr. Hafeez. For example, as a show of affection, you might give a partner a cute pet name (like “sweet pea” or “cuddle bear”), which research has shown is associated with greater relationship satisfaction3 in married couples. Similarly, you might use a kid-like term for an inside joke to reduce tension or evoke feelings of nostalgia. “By embracing a playful and lighthearted tone, couples can navigate challenges with a sense of warmth and understanding,” adds Dr. Hafeez.

“Baby talk in adult couples is a reflection of a special and close relationship and is often used to demonstrate care and adoration.” —Elizabeth Fedrick, PhD, LPC, clinical psychologist

Indeed, “baby talk in adult couples is a reflection of a special and close relationship and is often used to demonstrate care and adoration,” says Dr. Fedrick. Over time, these feel-good expressions can create a sense of safety and nurturance—which is essential for the longevity of a relationship. Some researchers even theorize that affectionate communication has helped humans survive as a species4, thanks to its integral role in the development of close, satisfying relationships.

What does it mean if you and your partner engage in baby talk?

Baby-talking with a partner may be an example of a bid for connection in your relationship, or the means by which you seek a partner’s attention and reaffirm your security in the partnership. For example, if you use silly or exaggerated words, perhaps saying something like, “Ouchie, my boo-boo hurts!” and your partner reciprocates or mirrors your tone, this can mean “that you feel safe and comfortable enough to engage in a child-like way without fear of judgment or ridicule,” says Dr. Fedrick.

Having any shared language within a relationship, baby talk included, can thus promote mutual understanding and strengthen your bond. But on the other hand, “not all couples engage in baby talk, and the absence of it does not indicate a lack of intimacy or connection,” says therapist Benu Lahiry, LMFT, chief clinical officer at premarital counseling platform Ours. “People have diverse communication styles, and finding a language that resonates with both partners is ultimately the key to fostering growth and intimacy in a relationship.”

When is baby talk a good thing in adult relationships?

When the intention behind the baby talk is linked to affection and play, baby talk can play a key role in facilitating intimate connection. Research has shown that people who baby-talk with partners or friends5 tend to have a more secure attachment style, which is the adult attachment style defined in attachment theory6 as feeling safe enough in relationships to engage freely in intimacy and vulnerability.

“In relationships characterized by secure attachment, partners feel comfortable expressing themselves openly and affectionately,” says Dr. Hafeez. And mutual baby talk can certainly be a part of this expression, allowing partners to exchange emotional support and enjoy moments of lightheartedness, she says.

That said, the overall effect of baby talk on a relationship depends on the setting and situation in which it’s used. If, for example, you call your partner “sweetie” only when you’re correcting them or when you’re in the presence of other people, it might read as patronizing, rather than endearing. But if, by contrast, you’re “in a private setting and you’re feeling united as a couple, baby talk can enhance a secure attachment because it demonstrates care and connection,” says Dr. Fedrick.

Another consideration is whether baby talk “aligns with the emotional needs and communication preferences of both partners,” says Lahiry. It’s possible that you or your partner just dislike baby talk—and that’s totally okay. At the end of the day, in order for baby talk to be a good thing in your relationship, you both need to consent to it and feel as though it adds to your relationship satisfaction.

And if it doesn’t? It’s important to have an open, honest conversation about avoiding it, says Dr. Fedrick. In this case, each partner should feel safe and secure enough in the relationship to say that baby talk isn’t for them, whether it makes them feel like they’re not being heard or taken seriously, or something else entirely.

When is baby talk considered negative or unhealthy for a couple?

Although baby talk is generally thought of as positive for a relationship, it can turn unhealthy if one partner isn’t receptive to this kind of communication, as noted above. A person certainly doesn’t have to mimic their partner’s cutesy language if it’s not part of their communication style. But, if one or both partners feel pressured to engage in baby talk or embarrassed to be on the receiving end of it, its usage can “result in frustration, resentment, and a diminished emotional connection,” says Dr. Hafeez.

The timing and frequency of baby talk can also affect how it’s received. For instance, you might interpret baby talk as highly inappropriate in the context of a serious conversation or a situation that calls for maturity, such as when you’re discussing household debt or your family member’s illness. “Baby talk can also be negative if used too frequently because it can start to distort the relationship away from a romantic dynamic to one that feels more platonic or juvenile,” says Dr. Fedrick. The same goes if the baby talk is so excessive that it leads to one partner being infantilized or treated like a child, says Lahiry.

“Baby talk can also be negative if used too frequently because it can start to distort the relationship away from a romantic dynamic to one that feels more platonic or juvenile.” —Dr. Fedrick

Whether you, your partner, or both of you are going to engage in baby talk, it’s important to be on the same page. If, for example, you delight in using silly words and nicknames, but your partner recoils at being addressed with these kinds of expressions, this would be considered “a mismatch in communication preferences,” says Lahiry. In this case, it would be best for you to stop directing baby talk at your partner, but perhaps you could still be on the receiving end of it, if your partner enjoys using it.

The bottom line? For some couples, mutual baby talk can be a sweet, nurturing gesture that allows them to strengthen their bond. But when it’s taken too far, used as a means to belittle a partner, or directed at someone who just doesn’t enjoy it, this type of language can have the opposite effect, putting a strain on a relationship.

The key to ensuring that your baby talk is helping—not hurting—your relationship is good ol’ (adult) communication, says Dr. Fedrick. Discussing baby talk with your partner will help you figure out whether it’s something you both enjoy and that can be additive for your emotional connection—or if it’s something you’d just rather reserve for the actual babies.