When we’re around babies, we can’t help ourselves. We start making cooing noises, talking in sing-song, and adding diminutive eeee’s at the ends of words – aren’t you a cutie? Do you want your dollie?
And that’s okay, albeit annoying to hear. Babies who can’t speak yet need to hear basic sounds repeated over and over again, and the melodic tones of baby talk help to get their attention. Language experts may go back and forth over how long such baby talk should last with infants, but they’re generally on board with the idea that it’s not a bad way to engage babies – and certainly not harmful.
But we’ve all heard the same baby talk directed at those considerably older – adults talking to other adults, mostly when they’re in love, in that same infantilizing way. And the reason they do it, say experts, is for the same reason we talk to babies that way. “We talk that way to one another because we love each other,” says Jean Berko Gleason, professor emerita of psychology at Boston University. “It’s the affective quality of the speech that people pick up when you talk to your loved one that way.”
And that makes sense, even if it is a little disturbing. Erotic love apparently draws from the same emotional well as…baby love? “It conveys intimacy and affect, because it’s tied to our memories of loving language,” says Gleason.
We can thank our brain chemicals for that. Dopamine, the feel-good substance in our brains, is responsible for those warm fuzzy feelings we get when we think of being loved by mom and dad. Biochemically, a lover elicits the same dopamine surge, making you feel wanted and secure in the fact that your feelings are reciprocated.
Then there’s oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, that’s also common to both paternal and romantic love. Here’s a fun fact – it’s triggered by close contact between parent and infant, and also during orgasms.
So the next time you catch yourself reverting to baby talk with your significant other, don’t feel so bad. It turns out you’re wired to become childlike in the face of any love.