Baby babbling: Is it a magic spell for Grandma’s heart?

Harper Rose decided that Grandma’s photo day wasn’t a shoe day. And that was just fine with Grandma. (Most things that Harper does are fine with Grandma, honestly.) Photo by Carolyn Bahm.

I’m getting to go through all the steps of babyhood again, just as I did with my own two daughters. But this time, it’s as a grandmother with the privilege of handing the darling babe back to her mom when I’m tired or the diaper is particularly wretched.

Carolyn Bahm

Harper is now almost 9 months old, and I don’t even care when she grabs my face with her strong baby fingers and those sharp-as-a-blade baby fingernails that seem to grow out overnight. She’s currently beguiled by glasses, so I’ve started keeping an old pair lying around to use when she’s feeling grabby. And when she’s visiting, I know to remove my hoop earrings and necklace (which are also baby magnets).

She was mightily frustrated recently when I was wearing a blouse that has a non-removable metal circle sewen into the front of the neckline. Clearly, I was keeping a shiny new teether from her, right?

All their little baby antics are worth it, though. It’s so charming when they look at you solemnly and then break out into a gummy grin because they know — they just know — they have you wrapped around their little fingers.

Just now, Harper’s going through the babbling stage, where it’s a steady stream of “Da-da-da,” “Ma-ma-ma” and (when she’s distressed because her mom is more than three feet away from her) “Nay-nay-nay.”

That one often makes me grin, because the repeated “Nay” sounds a lot like a very intentional protest. (“Nay! Nay, I say!”) The little queen has spoken.

It started me to thinking about babies’ first words. Aside from “Ma” and “Da,” my firstborn’s first word was “tickle.” I guess I must have tickled her a lot when she was a plump little marshmallow in my arms.

Then I started wondering how infants instinctively know the names for mama and daddy. Why are babies so consistent with those labels? And why do they so often say “Dada” first?
So off I went to Google.

Turns out, the best explanation I found was that babies are just practicing sounds that are fun to say. Eons ago, people decided those sounds would work just fine as terms for parents.

So the babble comes first, and the eager parents reinforce it by clapping and saying, “Yes, baby! I’m your mama!”

So … do we know why babies often learn the term for their fathers before the term for their moms, the ones who tend to do most of the baby care? had some insights: The Russian linguish Roman Jakobson said, “The sound of ‘m’ (for ‘mama’) is easier for babies to make because they tend to do so when their mouths are fastened to a bottle or breast.”

But on the same website, I believe that Breyne Moskowitz, PhD, won the argument about why “Dada” often comes first anyway in the baby lexicon: Nasal sounds such as “m” are harder to say, so babies are more likely to utter the sound “dada” because it doesn’t require forcing air through the nose.

And there we are, the grinning parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles, cooing at the little ones, clapping and cheering and kissing them when we hear the magic words. It’s no wonder they learn terms for family members so quickly.

While Harper was visiting us recently, she fixated on our fluffy elderly cat, Larry. Though she’s probably just babbling nonsense sounds in this case too, we choose to believe that her high-pitched squeals of “Ma!” mean “meow.”

Pretty confident she’s a genius now.

And it’s heartwarming to watch and listen to her as she blossoms. I still recall when her mommy was a toddler, calling caterpillars “KALL-er-pitters” until someone else clued her in (darn it).

So, tell me — what are your favorite experiences with your baby learning to speak?
Did they have any cute special words that are now part of your family’s vocabulary? (I still think “callerpitters” rules.)

CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to