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Baby Talk 101

by Denise Horton


When it comes to developing communication skills, babies and moms learn from each other.

The Toddler focuses on the toys: wheels to spin, horns to push, mirrors to look in. He’s oblivious to his mother seated behind him. But in a few moments, the 12-month-old turns toward her looking for her response.

“That toy is fun, isn’t it?” she exclaims, with a bright smile. “You can make lots of noises, can’t you?”

The little boy giggles at her response and turns back to the toy. The next time he turns toward her, a grin already has spread across his face as he anticipates her positive reception. How babies learn to communicate and the role mothers play in developing those skills lie at the heart of Hui-Chin Hsu’s research.

“Some researchers believe that infants come equipped with the ability to communicate but I think mothers play an essential role in how those abilities develop,” said Hsu, a University of Georgia child development researcher.

Hsu investigates what factors may influence the duration of mother-infant communication. For example, she has found that when mothers in her study aren’t paying close attention to their toddlers’ activity, the toddlers don’t turn around as often.

“The child develops an expectation of what he’ll see when he looks at his mother. If [she] isn’t available to him, then he won’t look back as frequently and he won’t begin smiling until he sees what her reaction is,” she said.

Hsu and her graduate students have videotaped and analyzed hundreds of hours of mom-baby interaction. Collecting the data is easy; it’s the analysis that’s hard.

“You have to code how many seconds a baby looks at the mom, or how many seconds he points at a toy and then turns to the mom,” she said. “[Only] then [can] you develop an analysis and begin to draw some conclusions.”

Hsu uses a standard statistical method to explore how long an event may last, given certain conditions.

She has learned that babies point at a toy longest — looking to their moms for a reaction — when moms are required to stay in one place reacting only verbally and with facial expressions.

When moms aren’t permitted to either move or respond, babies don’t point as long. Similarly, when moms move near their babies as well as talk, babies don’t point as long.

“It may be that the baby perceives his mother not to be available so he doesn’t look for her response very long,” Hsu said. “On the other hand, when the mother is right next to the baby, he may not point because he considers her to be just as involved as he is.”

In articles published recently in Developmental Psychology, Hsu identified three distinct patterns of mother-infant communication.

  • Symmetrical communication where mother and baby engage in communicating with each other;
  • Asymmetrical communication where mom actively tries to interact but baby responds passively; and
  • Unilateral communication where mom actively tries to interact but baby is engaged in other behavior, such as looking at other objects.

Using these mother-infant communication patterns, Hsu also explored the impact of babies’ non-distress vocalizations — such as gurgles, screeches and coos — on their mothers’ behavior. She found that mothers and babies develop recurring communication patterns with predictable transitions.

Hsu also has explored the influence of mother-infant communication on the infant’s vocal development. She identified two types of infant non-distress vocalization — syllabic, or speech-like, and vocalic, or non-speech-like — in a recent paper published in the journal Infancy. She also found increased rates of both types of vocalization when mother and infant are communicating with each other, but decreased rates when a mother is trying to communicate but a baby is engaged in other behavior.

Hsu, whose research is funded by the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, is now studying those same mothers and their children at ages 12 months, 30 months and 4 years to see how communication between mothers and children evolves.

“If we can continue to look at these same [people] over time,” she said, “we might be able to draw conclusions about important keys to the relationships between mothers and infants.”

For more information, contact Hui-Chin Hsu at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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