Talking like a baby signals a need for comfort

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  November 15, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara,
I've written in before, and have actually read your book (which I love), but it doesn't address this particular issue...

I have two children, a daughter age 10 and a son age 8. The 8-year-old baby-talks quite frequently, but only with me - not with dad, the babysitter, with friends, at school... only with me. I'm sure he's just looking for a reaction, so I've tried ignoring it, but it didn't stop. I've tried saying, "I'm sorry, I can't understand you. When you can talk like a big boy again, try again." He'll repeat what he was saying, but five minutes later, baby talk again. I've tried taking away something beloved, like the iPad (for a week), but literally within minutes of its return, he's baby-talking again.

I understand (and frequently apply!) your philosophy on consequences versus punishment, but there isn't always an obvious consequence for baby talking. I'm at the end of my rope on this, and hoping you have a suggestion!

Best regards,
From: Michelle, Reading, MA


Dear Michelle,

For reasons you may never know, he's feeling stressed. That he only does this with you is the tip-off. You're the person with whom he feels safest. That he chooses baby-talk instead of some other behavior tells me that he's looking for comfort. My guess is, he's feeling ambivalent, maybe unsure of himself, about demands that are being placed on him academically, socially, physically, emotionally.

I think this is within a normal range of development. I like to think of each stage of development as being divided into thirds: One-third of the time, a child's behavior is exactly where you'd expect it to be, developmentally. One-third of the time -- when he's feeling powerful and strong and all the stars are aligned -- he feels as if he could conquer the world. That's when he gets ahead of himself, developmentally. And one-third of the time, when he's tired or he's put out a lot of emotional or physical effort, he feels needy and incapable. That's when he regresses.

The baby-talk is obviously the regressive one-third. Here's the problem: When you ignore it, he's not getting the comfort he needs so he keeps doing it because he doesn't know any other way to get what he needs. So I'd try the opposite approach.

In the sing-songy voice you'd use with a baby, tell him, "Oh, my little baby, baby! Do you need a cuddle? Do you need a mommy hug?" (Do this only if no one else is around. In fact, I'm assuming he only does this when there's no one else there.*) Then, rock him or cuddle or whatever -- this should be quick, no more than a couple minutes -- and then, in your regular voice but while you're still in the comfort-giving position, grant his wish in fantasy: "Boy, wouldn't it be nice to be a baby all over again? And not have any big boy responsibilities? Sometimes, I'd like that for me, too." And then, poof, the spell is broken.

Once you've indulged him, I'm guessing he'll go back to regular voice and, after time, need to do this less and less. In fact, after this has happened a few times, offer him a short-hand: "Next time you want to cuddle, just ask me for an MH. Mommy Hug. It'll be our code."

*If he does baby-talk with you in front of other people, or if this happens many times a week, I'd consider it a red flag and seek professional advice.

Thanks for the shout-out, Michelle, about the book! which is now available in e-book!

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3 comments so far...
  1. i have a similar problem ,i have two kids a 10 year old and a 7 year old,the problem is with my 10 year old ,she talks so low i have to ash her constantly to repeat her self an when she does is in baby voice,almost all the time she talks to me she uses this voice ,it agravates me so much,im so ready to hear a 10 year old out of her,she doesnt like to help ,every request is a punishment ,,she ignores you and keeps going about her business ,when i diciplin her she stares blank at the walls with not expression or stares at the floor ,i have to fight with her for everything higine specialy ,doesnt want to bathe or brush her teeth or her hair is an every day problem with her,and every time i need to correct her on something she looks down to the floor with this expression on her face like someone killed her dog,there is more to this story ,i honestly dont know what to do with her.its like i cant reach her in a good way or being upset.

    Posted by dorissay3@gmail.com March 18, 13 09:05 AM
  1. Dear Doris, your daughter and you need professional help. There is something really bad going on in her life (school, friends, acquaintances, etc) that is making her feel totally inadequate. They've noticed the things you describe but they're probably telling her on the face and they're talking to others about it. Her whole outside world might be in chaos and against her (even if it is just in her mind) and you are treating her with the same lack of compassion. You are describing someone who has a lot of shame and/or embarrassment inside. She comes to you for comfort but you show your frustrations because she doesnt behave like a "real 10 yr-old", and i don't blame her when all she wants is to feel like a baby, like when you took care of her every step and there were no worries. She knows you are the one that can help improve her life. As a mother it would kill me to think how much she suffers every time she is not around me. You show concern which comes only from your love to her. Please get help as you don't know how to do that and she really needs it, especially now, before she enters her teen years. Start with a good teacher or school psychologist. Somebody has to get through her mind and find out what's going on in her life. God bless you both.

    Posted by Sl September 14, 13 03:20 PM
  1. I have a 13 year old daughter who was severely injured as a 2 year old. She had a severe head injury then. She has an emotional level of a 5 year old Now at 13 years old she frequently talks like a baby and it drive me, my husband, and all her siblings absolutely nuts. She is not discriminatory in whom she does this in front of or to. It is quite embarrassing when she does this, and getting her to stop is a featless act.

    Posted by Frustrated mom October 25, 13 10:50 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. i have a similar problem ,i have two kids a 10 year old and a 7 year old,the problem is with my 10 year old ,she talks so low i have to ash her constantly to repeat her self an when she does is in baby voice,almost all the time she talks to me she uses this voice ,it agravates me so much,im so ready to hear a 10 year old out of her,she doesnt like to help ,every request is a punishment ,,she ignores you and keeps going about her business ,when i diciplin her she stares blank at the walls with not expression or stares at the floor ,i have to fight with her for everything higine specialy ,doesnt want to bathe or brush her teeth or her hair is an every day problem with her,and every time i need to correct her on something she looks down to the floor with this expression on her face like someone killed her dog,there is more to this story ,i honestly dont know what to do with her.its like i cant reach her in a good way or being upset.

    Posted by dorissay3@gmail.com March 18, 13 09:05 AM
  1. Dear Doris, your daughter and you need professional help. There is something really bad going on in her life (school, friends, acquaintances, etc) that is making her feel totally inadequate. They've noticed the things you describe but they're probably telling her on the face and they're talking to others about it. Her whole outside world might be in chaos and against her (even if it is just in her mind) and you are treating her with the same lack of compassion. You are describing someone who has a lot of shame and/or embarrassment inside. She comes to you for comfort but you show your frustrations because she doesnt behave like a "real 10 yr-old", and i don't blame her when all she wants is to feel like a baby, like when you took care of her every step and there were no worries. She knows you are the one that can help improve her life. As a mother it would kill me to think how much she suffers every time she is not around me. You show concern which comes only from your love to her. Please get help as you don't know how to do that and she really needs it, especially now, before she enters her teen years. Start with a good teacher or school psychologist. Somebody has to get through her mind and find out what's going on in her life. God bless you both.

    Posted by Sl September 14, 13 03:20 PM
  1. I have a 13 year old daughter who was severely injured as a 2 year old. She had a severe head injury then. She has an emotional level of a 5 year old Now at 13 years old she frequently talks like a baby and it drive me, my husband, and all her siblings absolutely nuts. She is not discriminatory in whom she does this in front of or to. It is quite embarrassing when she does this, and getting her to stop is a featless act.

    Posted by Frustrated mom October 25, 13 10:50 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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