Gender stereotyping may start as young as 3 months—study of babies' cries shows

April 21, 2016, University of Sussex
Credit: axelle b/public domain

Gender stereotyping may start as young as three months, according to a study of babies' cries from the University of Sussex.

Adults attribute degrees of femininity and masculinity to babies based on the pitch of their cries, as shown by a new study by researchers from the University of Sussex, the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne and Hunter College City University of New York. The research is published in the journal BMC Psychology.

The study found:

  • Adults often wrongly assume babies with higher-pitched cries are female and lower pitched cries are male
  • When told the gender of the baby, make assumptions about the degree ofmasculinity or femininity of the baby, based on the pitch of the cry
  • Adults generally assume that babies with higher-pitched cries are in more intensediscomfort
  • Men who are told that a baby is a boy tend to perceive greater discomfort inthe cry of the baby. This is likely to be due to an ingrained stereotype that boy babies should have low-pitched cries. (There was no equivalent finding for women, or for men's perception of baby girls.)

Despite no actual difference in pitch between the voices of girls and boys before puberty, the study found that adults make gender assumptions about babies based on their cries.

Dr David Reby from the Psychology School at the University of Sussex said:

"It is intriguing that gender stereotyping can start as young as three months, with adults attributing degrees of femininity and masculinity to babies solely based on the pitch of their cries. Adults who are told, or already know, that a baby with a high-pitched cry is a boy said they thought he was less masculine than average. And baby girls with low-pitched voices are perceived as less feminine. There is already widespread evidence that gender stereotypes influence parental behaviour but this is the first time we have seen it occur in relation to babies' cries. We now plan to investigate if such stereotypical attributions affect the way babies are treated, and whether parents inadvertently choose different clothes, toys and activities based on the pitch of their babies' cries.

"The finding that men assume that boy babies are in more discomfort than girl babies with the same pitched cry may indicate that this sort of gender stereotyping is more ingrained in men. It may even have direct implications for babies' immediate welfare: if a baby girl is in intense discomfort and her cry is high-pitched, her needs might be more easily overlooked when compared with a boy crying at the same pitch. While such effects are obviously hypothetical, parents and care-givers should be made aware of how these biases can affect how they assess the level of discomfort based on the pitch of the cry alone."

Prof. Nicolas Mathevon, from the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne & Hunter College CUNY, commented:

"This research shows that we tend to wrongly attribute what we know about adults - that men have lower pitched voices than women - to , when in fact the pitch of children's voices does not differ between sexes until puberty. The potential implications for parent-child interactions and for the development of children's identity are fascinating and we intend to look into this further."

The researchers recorded the spontaneous cries of 15 boys and 13 girls who were on average four months old. The team also synthetically altered the pitch of the cries while leaving all other features of the cries unchanged to ensure they could isolate the impact of the pitch alone. The participating adults were a mixture of parents and non-parents.

Explore further: Mum and dad equally good at recognising baby's cry, study finds

More information: David Reby et al, Sex stereotypes influence adults' perception of babies' cries, BMC Psychology (2016). DOI: 10.1186/s40359-016-0123-6

Related Stories

Mum and dad equally good at recognising baby's cry, study finds

April 16, 2013
French researchers on Tuesday dealt a blow to folklore that says mothers are better than fathers in recognising their baby's cry.

For crying out loud!: Baby cries get a speedy response

January 11, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- The sound of babies crying is uniquely able to get adults to react at speed, Oxford University researchers have found.

Researchers study cry acoustics to determine risk for autism

November 27, 2012
Autism is a poorly understood family of related conditions. People with autism generally lack normal social interaction skills and engage in a variety of unusual and often characteristic behaviors, such as repetitive movements. ...

Cry analyzer seeks clues to babies' health

July 11, 2013
To parents, a baby's cry is a signal of hunger, pain, or discomfort. But to scientists, subtle acoustic features of a cry, many of them imperceptible to the human ear, can hold important information about a baby's health.

Do mothers really have stronger bonds with their children than fathers do?

April 20, 2016
From the marketplace to the workplace, it is mothers who are still perceived as having that "special bond" with their children. This is compounded by advertising and the widely held expectation that it will be mothers who ...

Recommended for you

We start caring about our reputations as early as kindergarten

March 20, 2018
Kindergarteners don't use social media, but they do care about their public image. Research suggests that by the time kids go to elementary school, they're thinking critically about their reputation. In a Review published ...

We can read each other's emotions from surprisingly tiny changes in facial color, study finds

March 19, 2018
Our faces broadcast our feelings in living color—even when we don't move a muscle.

Social media use at age 10 could reduce wellbeing of adolescent girls

March 19, 2018
Social media use may have different effects on wellbeing in adolescent boys and girls, according to research published in the open access journal BMC Public Health.

Study with infants suggests language not necessary for reasoning ability

March 16, 2018
A team of researchers from Spain, Hungary and Poland has found via a study with infants that language may not be a necessity for the ability to reason. In their paper published in the journal Science, the group describes ...

Hep C compounds alcoholism's effect on brain volume

March 16, 2018
(HealthDay)—Alcohol dependence has deleterious effects on frontal cortical volumes that are compounded by hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection and drug dependence, according to a study published online March 14 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Study casts doubt on ketamine nasal sprays for depression

March 16, 2018
Researchers from the Black Dog Institute and UNSW Sydney have questioned the efficacy and safety of intranasal ketamine for depression, with their pilot trial stopped early due to poor side effects in patients.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.