In the classic romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year, Kate Hudson’s character Andie takes the sugary speak known as baby talk to a whole new level in an effort to, well, lose a guy in 10 days. Channeling the sickeningly sweet octave we usually hit when we’re engaging with cute babies, Andie asks Matthew McConaughey’s character Ben in one scene if “Princess Sophia”—the nickname she’s given his penis—”wants to come out and play.” In another scene, she pointedly calls him: “Benny boo boo...boo boo boo!”
While Andie’s imitation of baby talk was really exaggerated—of course, no judgment if you’ve named your partner’s genitals after a princess!—it’s safe to say you’ve encountered this at some point in your life. Whether you were guilty of cooing at your partner or you had to watch an annoying roommate fawn over her guy, baby talk is pretty common among grown-ass people. In fact, a 1996 study found that in a survey of 126 students ranging from 17 to 49 years old, three-quarters said they’d used baby talk in their romantic relationships.
Why though? Why does falling in love with a person suddenly distort our ability to speak like a grown-up?
Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, the host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast, explains what baby talk is: “Baby talk often refers to changing your voice, tone, pronunciation and language to reflect how we perceive we should speak to babies,” she says. “You might pronounce your Rs like Ws (‘Are you weady?’ instead of ‘Are you ready?’) or you might push out your bottom lip while you speak as though you’re pouting.”
She doesn’t, however, lump pet names into the same bag as baby talk; it’s far more common for people to refer to their partners using terms of endearment.
According to many experts, baby talk use among adults strengthens interpersonal connections. The 1996 study’s authors found that people who babytalked were more secure and less avoidant about their attachments. “Babytalk seems to signal and enhance the feeling of security that allows people to ‘let their hair down’—to be emotionally open and playful,” they wrote.
For more insight, O’Reilly points to the origins of baby talk: “Baby talk between parent and child is a cross-cultural practice, and some theories suggest that it is an expression of love that promotes bonding. This same effect might apply to baby talk with your lover—it’s a unique expression that you reserve for one another, and it allows you to communicate intimate feelings, thoughts, and desires.”
See more: The Ultimate Guide to Talking Dirty
“Some suggest that it allows you to mimic your first love (parent to child),” she continues, “but I believe it’s more about playing a role that allows you to express yourself beyond your usual comfort zone; it’s a form of role-play.”
O’Reilly also says that regardless of how annoying it may seem to other people, any form of positive emotional expression is better than none. “If you’re more comfortable expressing a need using a baby voice, go for it. Who cares what other people think? Your desires and emotions are better expressed in a high-pitched tone than not at all.”
She adds: “If it irritates your partner, however, you might want to practice transitioning from baby talk to adult talk, as communication isn’t just about what you say, but how it’s received also factors into its outcome.”