Dads need to step it up with their coochie-coochie-coos, according to a new study that found mothers are far more likely than fathers to engage in baby talk. But while some child development experts say this is indicative of paternal failure, the truth is baby talk serves a purpose during very narrow window of time.

The most popular findings on language learning come from a study published in 1995. It found that some children heard as many as 30 million fewer words by their 4th birthdays than other kids, and that this massive gulf could predict a child’s academic and personal success for decades. The researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, called the phenomenon a gap in “meaningful differences,” and the term is still being applied, despite little agreement on what constitutes “meaningful.”

Dr. Betty Vohr, for instance, believes parents need to play a dual role in responding to their child's communication. "Talking with your child is such a cost-effective growing intervention that any parent can do," she told Medical Daily. "Why wait until you need the speech language pathologist and start doing therapy?" Vohr is an expert in neonatal development and the senior author of the new study. Her team found that babies heard three times as many words from their mothers than from their fathers. When fathers did respond, it was usually in conjunction with the mothers; alone, dads responded only six to 12 percent of the time. Boys also seemed to get the short end of the stick. Since mothers spent more time with daughters, and fathers with sons, the gender imbalance left baby boys talking to the wall.

On its face, this sounds disconcerting. Babies should get equal attention from their parents, and it should come in heaps. But does it mean that daughters will necessarily grow up ahead of sons? “My take is ‘no,’” said Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, to Today. “There’s no reason to worry since it seems to even out as a child gets older.”

Talk It Out

There’s evidence to suggest early exposure to language is beneficial, but the data seldom specify that baby talk past the first year of life will help. If anything, so-called adult talk wins out. Just recently researchers found rigidly structured sentences and inquiries led to stronger linguistic abilities than random strings of gibberish. “It’s not just about shoving words in,” Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, told The New York Times. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone.”

Kids need to hear words, but the quality of the words may be more important than the quantity. Early on, soothing sounds do matter. But if the “words” they continue to hear don’t actually exist, or if they aren’t anchored to any specific grammatical structure, the learning value tends to drop off. These are the meaningful differences. Kids whose families turn everyday activities like bath time and walks in the park into teachable moments end up exposing them to the richness of language, and research says it stays with them for life. Vohr has reached these conclusions in her own work already. In 2010, she found adult talk in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) helped preterm babies (32 to 36 weeks old) score higher on cognitive and language tests as early as 7 to 18 months. Mere exposure, it seemed, helped infants recover their diminished function faster.

The same held true in their recent analysis. There was a crucial window of time, around five seconds, between the baby making a noise and the parent reciprocating with a gesture or sound, that Vohr and her team concluded was important for language development. The problem is, while mothers responded 94 percent of the time, fathers only chimed in 33 percent of the time. Further research will help explain how the quality of each parent's communication may affect the child's overall development, Vohr says.

In the meantime, if there is anything to gain from baby talk, it’s at least that parents are talking to their kids. It’s better for mothers to engage their children with goo-goo-ga-ga, for instance, than for fathers to do nothing. Trouble arises when parents don’t give their kids enough credit, relying on their baby-talk lexicon after it’s no longer useful. Or, as Vohr points out, there's the issue of tech-overload replacing communication altogether.

"Nowadays, I do have a concern that so many parents are on their iPads and iPhones," she said. "And in their cars in particular you see so many kids just looking at their own little video in the backseat, and no one is talking."