Dada vs. Mama: The Science Behind Baby’s First Word


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Hearing your baby utter “mama” or “dada” for the first time is undoubtedly the holy grail of milestones. Just ask fashion designer Rachel Zoe who recently told PEOPLE that she was ecstatic to hear her 12-month-old son say the word “Mama” for the first time. “They always say, ‘Dada,’ first and I don’t know what that is,” Zoe said. “It’s like someone is punishing us for something. We carry them, we push them out and they say, ‘Dada?’ I’m still trying to figure this out.”

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Whether or not babies utter “Mama” or “Dada” first is highly individualized — both words are common because their repetition makes them easier to sound out and babies who hear them experience heightened activity in the portion of the brain that processes language, according to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It’s probably no coincidence that many languages around the world have repetitious syllables in their ‘child words,’" study author Judit Gervain said in a press release. 

Experts are mixed about whether or not saying “mama” is easier than “dada” for babies. Classic theories by the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson found that the sound of “m” (for “mama”) is easier for babies to make because they tend to do so when their mouths are fastened to a bottle or breast. But according to Breyne Moskowitz, PhD, nasal sounds such as “m” are actually more difficult. Between the ages of four and six months, infants start babbling as a way to test their articulatory skills. They’re more likely to utter the sound “da” because doing so doesn’t require him or her to force air through the nose. 

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In that case, your baby may or may not know he is specifically calling for “Dada” but it’s the first word that adults recognize as “real.” “Kids start with simple words that have various meanings,” Sandra Disner, PhD, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California, tells Yahoo Parenting. “The word ‘up’ could mean ‘pick me up’ or ‘the moon in the sky.’” 

My six-month-old son has been babbling “Mama” for months, usually when he’s upset. Whether that’s because I am often the one to soothe him or because I am constantly repeating “Mama” around him is unclear. But I’ll take it. 

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