Baby Talk

Why Your Kid’s First Word Will Probably Be ‘Mama,’ ‘Dada,’ Or ‘No’

And also why you probably can't influence it, Dada.

Originally Published: 
Two dads holding their baby.
Willie B. Thomas/Getty

A baby’s first words are a battle fought between Mamas and Papas who are so insecure (mostly Papas) that they believe the kid will be more devoted to the first parent they can name. Of course, that’s nonsense. Just ask Junior if their first words mean anything and they’ll probably tell you, “No,” because that’s literally the most common first word there is aside from repetitive 2-syllable words like the one you’re rooting for…or against.

Why is that? Research has shown that when babies hear words with repeating sounds, the language centers in their brains light up in ways they don’t for non-repetitive-sounding ones. When the babies in one study were played repetitious, made-up words like “penana,” brain activity increased in their temporal and left frontal areas. For words without adjacent repetitions, like “mubage,” there were no distinctive brain responses.

What this research suggests, to quote an artist whose name your baby is as likely to speak as yours or their mother’s, is that they were born this way. That is, word processing is hardwired in the brain, not learned. It also suggests that mother and father pet names have been adapted to this ability, which explains why so many cultures have similar-sounding terms for Mama and Dada.

As for why babies are so damn negative (and terrible at improv), Stanford researchers may have some answers. Researchers at the university found that “No” is one of most babies’ first 10 words, while “Yes” isn’t even in the top 20. Turns out, one of the primary roles of a parent during their kid’s pre-verbal months is to keep them from doing things they shouldn’t do.

So, unlike the innately processed repetitive sounds, negation is one of the first learned abstract concepts for many many kids. They progress quickly from the use of “No” as an expression of rejection to more complex uses as expressions of frustration and logic. One linguist did find that children of particularly restrictive parents tended toward more prevalent use of simple negation, while more laissez faire parents’ kids used “no” in a more sophisticated manner.

Do with that information what you will, but if you need a way to put all of this first word knowledge together, it’s this: Don’t say no to your baby saying “Mama” first.

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