We make gender assumptions about babies almost immediately after they are born. Based on nothing more than the pitch of their piercing cries, we infer gender, relative comfort or stress level, and even personality.
A new study from the University of Sussex shows that we start stereotyping babies based on gender as young as three months old. We assume that babies with higher-pitched cries are female, and that the higher-pitched the cry relative to gender, the more discomfort the baby is in.
"It is intriguing that gender stereotyping can start as young as three months," says author David Reby, "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."
And it’s all bunk. The difference in average pitch between adult males and females is down to differences in the length of the vocal cords, which doesn't occur until puberty. In babies, there is no actual difference in pitch between genders.
The study recorded real babies in a situation almost guaranteed to make them wail—bath time. The recordings were were made at home, over a period of four months. After some processing, the sounds were played back to participants in randomized, double-blind tests.
The listeners were found to assess the babies’ sex based on the pitch of their cries, and to attribute stress levels dependent on pitch. Men assumed male babies were more stressed than females when both were crying at the same pitch—a result the author believes indicates gender stereotyping is more ingrained in men.
"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," Reby says.
Parents and caregivers should be made aware of this information so that they can discount the pitch of the cry when trying to work out what the whining little tyke wants. Or at least, they can discount gender bias when assessing the cries. Now, if only parents would stop dressing their boys in blue and their girls in pink.