Can you tell whether a baby is a boy or girl just from its cry? Science says no, but a study shows adults still make gender assumptions about infants as young as three months old, based solely on their cries.

A study published in the journal BMC Psychology found that adults attribute degrees of femininity and masculinity to babies based on the pitch of their cries.

Babies with high-pitched cries were often wrongly assumed to be female, while the lower-pitched cries were generally perceived to belong to baby boys. This is despite there being no evidence of any actual difference in pitch between the voices of girls and boys until puberty.

The study used recordings of infants of both genders and with an average age of four months, which were played to adults who were then asked to identify the gender of the crying baby.

Sex stereotypes influence adults’ perception of babies’ cries
Image: BMC Psychology

When the researchers told the adults which gender the baby was, the gender stereotyping continued. There was an assumption that baby boys should have low-pitched cries.

Dr David Reby, lead author, noted: “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.”

The study also found that men assume that baby boys are in more discomfort than baby girls with the same pitched cry, suggesting that this sort of gender stereotyping could be more ingrained in men than in women.

The researchers highlighted that these gender stereotypes could have a negative impact on the care infants receive: “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.”

The researchers are planning to investigate further the implications of stereotyping and the potential effects it could have on how babies are treated and brought up.

We already know that gender stereotyping begins early. Speaking at Davos 2016, Sheryl Sandberg talked about a “toddler wage gap”.

She explained that boys tend to be given chores such as taking out the trash, while girls do the washing up. She also pointed out that boys’ tasks often take less time and that they are given bigger allowances.

“We start out in our homes with these very different expectations, and the time spent on these tasks is incredibly important," she said.

Biases and gender stereotypes – which, as the study shows, begin in the cradle – develop into barriers that have a profound effect on girls as they grow up. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report shows that this is a problem that affects women of all ages across the world.