Picture this: it’s a slow Monday evening, you and your partner are on the train (hands entwined, of course), heading back to his place after a wholesome pasta date. He inches closer and whispers in your ear: "I wuv you, sweet pea." Stunned, you pull back to study his expression and spot not a hint of irony. Instead, he looks at you expectantly and that’s when you realise: your partner actually enjoys baby talk. You know, the high-pitched voice in which adults often speak to infants; the exaggerated intonation whereby 'love' becomes 'wuv' and syllables are often repeated (read: tum-tum) for an extra dose of cuteness.
Chances are, you have experienced baby talk outside the adult-infant dynamic in romantic situations as well. Whether you drag out your words while throwing a tantrum at your partner or hear your friend slur into the phone with syrupy sweetness while speaking to their girlfriend, baby talk in relationships is more common than you’d imagine. In fact, a study by the Kinsey Institute found that two-thirds of all couples indulge in baby talk as a way to express intimate affection. Yet the response to baby talk is wildly divisive: some people are really ticked off by it while others find it unimaginably comforting.
If you search 'couples baby talk' on TikTok, thousands of videos pop up, the most popular oscillating somewhere between 'couples who take baby talk too far' and 'sue me for enjoying baby talk'. Why does this practice evoke such polarised reactions? For Shaila Ankolekar, 24, the baby voice symbolises inequality and underestimation. "It reminds me of the patronising tone in which my parents spoke to me as a preteen when they didn’t take my decisions seriously. So when my partner addresses me as a baby it triggers that trauma," says the London-based graphic designer. Shaila’s friend Akanksha Parulekar, an illustration student, adds to this by asserting that when her ex spoke in a baby voice, it forced Akanksha into the position of caregiver, which was a turn-off. "It felt like I was responsible for him then, which made me very uncomfortable," she confesses.
Dr Jenny van Hooff, a sociologist who studies intimate relationships, believes that numerous intersections of identity like financial freedom, age and sexuality play a role in contextualising a relationship. In heterosexual relationships, gender becomes a common micro-expression of power, explaining why, as a woman, Akanksha felt pushed into the category of nurturer when her former partner used a baby voice. However, research reveals that partners who baby talk are more securely attached to each other and less avoidant than couples who refrain from it. "It’s like a post-sex ritual for my girlfriend and I to use a baby voice – it’s when both of us are at our most vulnerable. I always cuddle her and call her my little monkey-wonkey," says Blakely*, a 27-year-old sales assistant, adding that he feels most loved in these moments.
While guardians use baby talk with infants to facilitate language acquisition skills, it also develops an intimate emotional bond between the caregiver and the child. Using this love language with a romantic partner signifies a similar feeling of safety and comfort in the relationship. "Baby talk in couples is a form of regression. It’s the ability to show the silly, childlike parts of yourself that you cannot at work, among friends or other social settings. It opens up a new territory of closeness and sensuality for partners," says Susanna Abse, a relationship psychotherapist and author of Tell Me the Truth About Love, in which she shares the insights gathered over three decades of professional practice.
Susanna highlights the importance of both partners taking the role of the 'baby' alternately to avoid a power imbalance in the relationship, adding that men often resist regression as it isn’t seen as 'masculine' enough. "I noticed when my male partner speaks to me in a baby voice and I respond in the same pitch, treating him as a baby, it makes him a little conscious. But with most women I’ve been with, they enjoy the reciprocity and it becomes a little game," shares Natalie*, who is polyamorous. No matter which side you stand on within a relationship, most people agree that couples participating in baby talk publicly is cringe to say the least.
Yes, baby talk signals affection but it can also be used as a manipulation tactic in relationships.
Leyla* dreads weekends at her older brother’s house because, unknowingly, he speaks to his wife in the same high-pitched baby voice he used for her when she was growing up. As the youngest of three siblings, the 23-year-old was used to being babied but every time her brother coos at his wife and asks her if she has eaten enough, the resemblance makes Leyla sick to the stomach. "It’s like PDA but much worse because it feels like they’re baring their souls to each other and you’re a nonconsensual bystander," Blakely says. In his experience, his friends who speak to their partners in a baby voice socially seem to be trying too hard to portray a happy, healthy relationship.
Hannah*, a 26-year-old dancer, shares how her ex often spoke in a baby voice at social gatherings to assert a kind of dominance over her. At dinner once, she recalls how he controlled how many drinks she had by repeatedly saying "I know what’s best for my baby" or "My baby trusts me to pick her favourite drink". In hindsight, Hannah realises that this behaviour would flare up when she was around other men who showed an interest in her.
Yes, baby talk signals affection but it can also be used as a manipulation tactic in relationships. So much so that British singer and television personality Megan McKenna recently released a single titled "Baby Talk", which she performed at Glastonbury Festival. The breakup song divulges her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, focusing on fake affection and lies with lyrics like: "So I don’t need your baby talk/You might as well just walk the walk." Dr van Hooff addresses the negative hold that baby voices can have and stresses the importance of couples being mindful of when the gesture becomes infantilising or controlling. Just like other love languages, baby talk can easily become toxic but in the right moment and with the right person, it can be immensely reassuring and comforting.
*Name has been changed