While equality for men and women has come a long way over the years, gender stereotyping persists. Now, a new study suggests such stereotyping begins as young as 3 months, after finding many adults make assumptions about a baby’s gender based on the pitch of their cry.

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New research suggests that, for many adults, gender stereotypes influence the perception of babies’ cries.

Dr. David Reby, of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK, and colleagues publish their findings in the journal BMC Psychology.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a gender stereotype is a “generalized view or preconception about attributes or characteristics that are or ought to be possessed by, or the roles that are or should be performed by women and men.”

Dr. Reby and colleagues note that gender stereotyping can influence the behavior of parents as a soon as a child is born. For example, parents often dress boys or girls differently, or expect them to take part in different activities, which the researchers say can contribute to a child’s gender identity.

However, the team notes that it is unclear how gender stereotypes might affect parental care, such as their assessment of a baby’s needs.

“In particular, although crying is a ubiquitous signal for human babies to communicate their distress and their needs,” say the authors, “whether inter-individual acoustic differences in cries affect caregivers’ gender attributions, and whether this affects their interpretation of the functional content of cries, has not yet been investigated.”

With this in mind, the researchers conducted a study in which they recorded spontaneous cries of 28 babies – 15 girls and 13 boys – as they were being bathed by their parents. The babies were an average age of 4 months, with some as young as 3 months.

In an experiment, the babies’ cries were played back to non-parents, as well as the parents of the babies whose cries were recorded.

The pitches of the babies’ cries were synthetically modified, but all other aspects of their cries were unchanged. This was so the team could isolate the impact of pitch alone.

The team found that adults often incorrectly attributed higher-pitched cries to a baby girl, while cries of a lower pitch were often wrongly attributed to a baby boy.

Furthermore, when the adults were told of a baby’s gender, they often made assumptions about the child’s masculinity or femininity based on the pitch of their cries.

For example, baby boys who had higher-pitched cries were assumed to be less masculine than average, while baby girls who had lower-pitched cries were deemed as less feminine than average.

The researchers note that it is not until puberty that differences emerge between the voices of girls and boys, but their findings indicate that many adults wrongly apply this known gender difference to babies.

Additionally, the researchers found that adults generally assumed that babies with higher-pitched cries were in more intense discomfort than those with lower-pitched cries, and male adults often perceived greater discomfort in the cries of baby boys.

“This interaction effect may indicate that sex-stereotypical expectations that male babies should be lower-pitched than female babies lead male listeners to overestimate discomfort in unfamiliar boys’ cries,” note the authors.

Dr. Reby says the finding that men assume a baby boy is in more discomfort than a baby girl when they have the same-pitched cry could have implications for a baby’s 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,” he explains.

“While such effects are obviously hypothetical, parents and caregivers 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,” he adds.

It is already known that gender stereotyping can influence parental behavior, but Dr. Reby says this study is the first to show that such stereotyping may be associated with a baby’s cry.

Commenting on the results, study co-author Prof. Nicolas Mathevon, from the University of Lyon/Saint-Etienne in France and Hunter College City University of New York, says:

This research shows that we tend to wrongly attribute what we know about adults – that men have lower pitched voices than women – to babies, 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 gender identity are fascinating and we intend to look into this further.”

In 2014, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that mothers with positive childhood experiences respond better to their babies’ cries.