New research says babies' cries reveal how early we start gender stereotyping them.

By Melissa Willets
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What's in a baby's cry? As it turns out, a lot, according to new research that says adults attribute feminine and masculine characteristics to cries as early as three months of age.

Research out of the University of Sussex, published in the journal BMC Psychology, looked at 15 boys and 13 girls (an admittedly small sample) who were about four months old. They found higher pitched cries are often thought to be coming from girl babies. Furthermore, when adults are told which gender a baby is, they assume the infant is either more or less masculine or feminine based on the pitch of the cry.

Whoa! So much pressure for such little babies!

Researchers, who analyzed the reactions of both parents and non-parents, also say higher pitched cries are generally thought to be associated with a baby being in more distress. And interestingly, men will assume a boy baby should have a lower-pitched cry—and detect more distress in one who doesn't.

Dr. David Reby from the Psychology School at the University of Sussex explains the implications of the findings, saying, "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."

He specifically commented on men's perceptions of 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."

Heavy stuff, since presumably, we can't necessarily control our natural reactions to hearing babies' cries. The takeaway seems to be that parents should cultivate awareness about how we might be treating babies of different genders differently, even very early on.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.

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