The science of baby speech sounds: men and women may experience them differently

M. Fernanda Alonso Arteche –
Instagram: @laneurotransmisora

School of Communication Science and Disorders, McGill University, Center for Research on Brain, Language, and Music (CRBLM), Montreal, QC, H3A 0G4, Canada

Instagram: @babylabmcgill

Popular version of 2pSCa – Implicit and explicit responses to infant sounds: a cross-sectional study among parents and non-parents
Presented at the 186th ASA Meeting
Read the abstract at

–The research described in this Acoustics Lay Language Paper may not have yet been peer reviewed–

Imagine hearing a baby coo and instantly feeling a surge of positivity. Surprisingly, how we react to the simple sounds of a baby speaking might depend on whether we are women or men, and whether we are parents. Our lab’s research delves into this phenomenon, revealing intriguing differences in how adults perceive baby vocalizations, with a particular focus on mothers, fathers, and non-parents.

Using a method that measures reaction time to sounds, we compared adults’ responses to vowel sounds produced by a baby and by an adult, as well as meows produced by a cat and by a kitten. We found that women, including mothers, tend to respond positively only to baby speech sounds. On the other hand, men, especially fathers, showed a more neutral reaction to all sounds. This suggests that the way we process human speech sounds, particularly those of infants, may vary significantly between genders. While previous studies report that both men and women generally show a positive response to baby faces, our findings indicate that their speech sounds might affect us differently.

Moreover, mothers rated babies and their sounds highly, expressing a strong liking for babies, their cuteness, and the cuteness of their sounds. Fathers, although less responsive in the reaction task, still rated highly their liking for babies, the cuteness of them, and the appeal of their sounds. This contrast between implicit (subconscious) reactions and explicit (conscious) opinions highlights an interesting complexity in parental instincts and perceptions. Implicit measures, such as those used in our study, tap into automatic and unconscious responses that individuals might not be fully aware of or may not express when asked directly. These methods offer a more direct window into the underlying feelings that might be obscured by social expectations or personal biases.

This research builds on earlier studies conducted in our lab, where we found that infants prefer to listen to the vocalizations of other infants, a factor that might be important for their development. We wanted to see if adults, especially parents, show similar patterns because their reactions may also play a role in how they interact with and nurture children. Since adults are the primary caregivers, understanding these natural inclinations could be key to supporting children’s development more effectively.

The implications of this study are not just academic; they touch on everyday experiences of families and can influence how we think about communication within families. Understanding these differences is a step towards appreciating the diverse ways people connect with and respond to the youngest members of our society.