A new study says baby-talking to your dog will make it bond more deeply with you, but does that mean the same would happen for your human relationships? The answer is maybe, if you don’t mind participating in something soul-killingly unsexy.
Baby talk in relationships — not just the nicknames like “babycakes” and “sweetums,” but also the I wuv my wittle babypoo-type declarations — is apparently, a good thing. Some social scientists and linguists say it’s the same system that allows infants to bond with their caregivers, and therefore, adults to bond with other adults.
“Couples, speaking this way, harken back to their own experience when they were infants and to their first love, their mother,” anthropologist Dean Falk told The Sun last year. Linguist Frank Nuessel told them that even the sounds in our nicknames and baby talk replicate the first sounds babies make.
“Commonly, when babies begin acquiring language, they use the vowel ‘a’, and consonants like ‘p’, ‘b’, and ‘m’ because they are bilabial [a sound caused by the closure or near closure of the lips] and the easiest to pronounce,” Nuessel said.
Psychotherapist Nan Wise brings up the rear by revealing that adult baby talk can also be credited with “facilitating these innate bonding systems of play, and care” for grown-ups who need a little escape, which offers “social connections” that are “critical for well-being.”
Of course, not everyone feels this way. A notable Seinfeld episode introduced us to the abject tyranny of having to hear two people call each other “Schmoopie”:
But we can thank an episode of Sex and the City for showing us how disconcerting it can be when you’re blindsided by it coming from a man during sex. In “Baby, Talk is Cheap,” Samantha starts sporting fake hard nipples under her clothing because they’re all the fashion rage. This lands her a successful MBA at a bar who clearly has a thing for them, which she considers a casual sex success story, until he starts baby-talking her.
“Samantha does your ‘gina wina want a wittle visit fwom my mister mister?” he asks her while making out. She recoils, as do her friends the next day when she recounts the story to them. Charlotte actually posits that maybe men who speak baby talk do so to avoid intimacy. Carrie notes in the episode that baby talk during sex is basically like putting ketchup on a prime rib: “You’re ruining it.”
Some non-fiction women share similar complaints. In spite of research suggesting that men baby-talking women might get them laid more, and Red Pill theories that women baby-talk men because they have daddy issues, there are multiple advice columns fielding questions from women who don’t do it and don’t want it done to them, and more specifically, on how to get an otherwise fuckable man to stop baby-talking them.
In one, a woman writes in to the Telegraph to complain that her relationship with a “kind and attractive man” is going well except for the fact that he “frequently exhibits regressive, quite baby-ish behaviour (for example, coy smiles, occasionally babyish speech, pouting etc). It is almost as if he is a pleased, embarrassed, shy little boy, rather than the very attractive man that I had met several times previously and have now started to date.”
Advice giver Sarah Abel tells her that while some experts think it’s a positive thing, as outlined above, others think of it as Charlotte did in that SATC episode, “as displacement behavior used by adults struggling to vocalize their needs, anger or other negative emotions in a mature way.” Another woman writes on Reddit that her boyfriend’s “kiddy voice” he uses when he discusses “needing to take a poo” or when making kissy sounds at her in public are embarrassing.
Men are annoyed by girlfriends who baby talk too. But whether the baby talker is a man or a woman, it’s clear this weird exchange is not for everyone. It’s worth noting that revulsion when men baby talk in part stems from the fact that we limit men’s abilities to remain childlike in an appealing way as they age. While women can be called girls until they are 100 years old, and admired for girlish figures and girlish behavior no matter their age, we would be very resistant to give men a similar pass. Women strive to be girlish forever; men should be young at heart only. If anything, being too childlike would be cause for concern, as we pressure little boys to become men in every way, as soon as possible.
What’s more, we still expect men to play a leadership role in a relationship in spite of our talk of equality. It’s one thing to complain that your boyfriend or husband turns into a baby when he gets the “man flu,” quite another to learn he enjoys being talked to like a baby during sex.
But while that’s unfair, it’s still hard to justify the behavior unless you find it endearing or a turn on. At some point, it begins to veer into Adult Baby Fetish territory, which coincidentally enough, tends to have more men as devotees. Like Seinfeld would say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
But those who like the baby talk should find people who also like it, so that, like anything, it’s fun and enjoyable, instead of something one of you suffers through. Funnily enough, the advice given for what to do when your partner baby talks and you are repulsed sounds a lot like parenting tips: “Come from a place of understanding and curiosity, rather than lecturing,” one expert advises. “Start by affirming him,” advises another. Definitely don’t reward it, advises another. It’s anyone’s guess if that will work, or if you will have start taking away toys to make your point.
Tracy Moore is a staff writer at MEL. She last wrote about the ball-in-beer cool girl.