Newborn infants are drawn to certain sounds right from birth. Their preferences help them bond with caregivers and learn language. Understanding what attracts newborns’ attention provides insight into early communication development.
What sounds can newborns hear?
A newborn’s sense of hearing is still developing, but they can detect a variety of sounds:
- Low-pitched voices
- Musical tones
- Rhythmic sounds
- White noise
Newborns cannot hear high frequencies well. Their optimal hearing range is the male voice and music. Loud noises may startle or disturb them.
What voices do babies prefer?
Studies find newborns prefer their mother’s voice over others. Infants as young as a few days old will listen longer to their mother reading a book compared to a stranger’s voice.
This preference occurs because babies become familiar with their mother’s voice in the womb. The intonation patterns are soothing and capture their interest after birth.
Newborns also favor the female voice in general. Both male and female infants show a stronger reaction to a woman’s voice compared to a man’s. The higher pitch and exaggerated vocal contours typical of “motherese” are more engaging.
Reasons for preferring female voices
- Higher pitch more audible to newborn ear
- More exaggerated vocal fluctuations
- Musical, rhythmic quality
- Familiarity from hearing in utero
Do babies prefer their native language?
At birth, infants do not show a preference for their native language. Their brains are tuning into the sounds of any language during the first months. But by about 5 months old, babies become specialized in processing their native language.
In one study, English-learning and Tagalog-learning infants listened longer to English at 6-8 months. But at 4 months, they showed no difference in attention, indicating tuning into their native language had not yet occurred.
Language preference development
- At birth – No preference
- By 5 months – Begin preferring native language sounds
- By 6 months – Listen longer to native language
What makes baby talk engaging?
“Baby talk” uses a higher pitch, exaggerated fluctuations, anddrawn-out vowels. These qualities make it more acoustically interesting to infants. The repetitive rhythm and musicality also help hold their attention.
Compared to regular speech, baby talk has:
- Higher pitch
- Slower tempo
- Exaggerated intonation
- Shorter utterances
Caregivers instinctively use this speech register when engaging with infants. Studies find babies listen longer to baby talk, supporting its role in grabbing their interest.
Do babies prefer happy, angry, or neutral speech?
From birth, infants show a preference for happy, friendly voices over neutral or angry voices. In one experiment, babies listened longer to playful baby talk than more flat adult-directed speech.
Angry voices did not appeal to young infants and made them distressful in some cases. Happy voices also elicited stronger brain responses compared to angry voices, indicating greater engagement.
|Longest listening times, positive reactions
|Shorter listening times
|Distress, avoids listening
Newborns are tuned into the emotional tone of voices. Happy vocal sounds help form positive associations during social interactions.
Do babies prefer speech or music?
Infants do not show an overall preference for speech over music or vice versa. Instead, their interest depends on the type of speech and melodic qualities.
In one study, babies listened equally to normal adult-directed speech and playsongs. But they preferred listening to infant-directed speech (baby talk) compared to instrumental music alone.
The combination of music patterns and speech found in baby talk holds their attention best. Simple melodies paired with singing also engage newborns’ interest.
- Baby talk over instrumental music
- Normal speech and playsongs equally
- Combination of music and speech
Do babies prefer high- or low-pitched sounds?
Newborns detect low-frequency sounds best, so they generally prefer lower-pitched voices. Infants show stronger reactions to a man’s voice reading than a woman’s in some cases.
However, higher-pitched voices are still more engaging if at the right level. When pitches get too high, interest decreases. Caregivers instinctively use an elevated but moderate pitch range when speaking to infants.
- Detect low frequencies best
- Optimal range is male voice and music
- Prefer elevated but not extreme pitches
How do sound preferences aid development?
A newborn’s sound preferences guide them toward important stimuli in their environment. Preferring caregiver voices and certain musical qualities helps the infant learn language and social skills.
Responding more to happy voices promotes bonding. Favoring native language develops verbal skills. Baby talk highlights important speech sounds.
Caregivers can capitalize on these preferences through infant-directed speech, singing, and conversation. Following the infant’s lead also helps nurture communication development.
Benefits of newborn sound preferences
- Language learning
- Social development
- Caregiver bonding
- Cognitive stimulation
Newborns come pre-wired to prefer certain sounds that aid their growth. Female voices, happy expressions, native languages, and moderate pitch levels capture their interest best. Caregivers can engage infants through talking, singing, and responding to them using these sound qualities. Understanding what appeals most to babies provides insight into early communication and social development.