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Do Parents Recognize Their Infants’ Cries?

That’s the sound of my baby: I recognize the cry.

Many of us have experienced the following scenario: You settle into your seat expecting a restful flight home when within earshot an infant begins to cry incessantly. There goes your opportunity to catch up on your sleep. Not surprisingly, human infant crying is an important mode of communication that has clear evolutionary roots (cf. Zeifman, 2001). It is meant to alert the parents in no uncertain terms that they should drop everything and tend to the baby’s needs (e.g., hunger). While parents might vary in their parental aptitudes (including how to respond to a crying baby), are they equally adept in recognizing the cries of their infant? In other words, do parents possess the auditory ability to discriminate their infant’s cry from that of other infants? Furthermore, are fathers and mothers equally proficient in this parental skill? A 1983 “oldie but goodie” paper authored by James A. Green and Gwen E. Gustafson and published in Developmental Psychobiology tackled these exact issues.

Four minutes of crying stemming from twenty infants were recorded without the presence of their respective parents in the room. Subsequently, tapes were created that contained 24 cries, each of which was 15 seconds in length. Parents then simultaneously listened to the tape, which was comprised of six cries from their infant, and 18 filler cries stemming from other infants. The task of the parents was to then independently determine whether or not each of the 24 cries was from their infant (they provided a “yes/no” response to each of the 24 auditory clips). Prior to my reporting the findings, take a moment to guess the likely success rate, and whether this rate varies across fathers and mothers.

Here are the key relevant findings:

1) Overall Accuracy Rate

Recognizing their own infants’ cries: 5.5 out of 6 (quite extraordinary)

False positives (i.e., incorrectly identifying a cry as stemming from their infant): 5.9 out of 18

⇨ Net accuracy rate: 17.6 out of 24 (well above chance level using a binomial test)

2) Accuracy Rate Across Mothers and Fathers

Via Fisher’s Exact Probability test, the researchers calculated the number of hits and false positives that in combination would allow them to assign each parent as having identified or not their infant’s cry above chance level. Using this statistical criterion, 25 out of the 40 parents (62.5%) were able to do so. When broken down by parental sex, 45% of the fathers but 80% of the mothers performed above chance level (p < .01).

Bottom line: On average, parents are able to identify the unique auditory signal of their infant’s cries albeit mothers perform much better on this task than fathers do. A natural extension of this research (assuming that it has not already been conducted) would be to explore variables that might engender within-sex individual differences in this ability.

On a related note, I am currently conducting several studies with my doctoral student Eric Stenstrom on the effects of visual and auditory baby primes on a wide range of consumer-related phenomena including charitable behaviors, conspicuous consumption, and risk-taking proclivities. Stay tuned for the results!

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