Latest Issue of Science News



Growth Curve

The inexact science
of raising kids
Laura Sanders
Growth Curve

Babies tune in to happy sounds

Like astronaut Chris Ferguson, babies can’t resist Elmo’s giggly, cutesy voice. 

Sponsor Message

Baby V sailed through her first Christmas with the heart of a little explorer. She travelled to frigid upstate New York where she mashed snow in her cold little hands, tasted her great grandma’s twice baked potato and was licked clean by at least four dogs.

And she opened lots of presents. It’s totally true what people say about little kids and gifts: The wrapping paper proved to be the biggest hit. But in the Christmas aftermath, one of Baby V’s new toys really caught her attention. She cannot resist her singing, talking book.

The book has only three pages, but Baby V is smitten. Any time the book pipes up, which it seems to do randomly, she snaps to attention, staring at it, grabbing it and trying to figure it out.

With a cutesy high-pitched voice, the book tells Baby V to “Turn the pa-AYE-ge!” and “This is fun!” Sometimes, the book bursts into little songs, all the while maintaining the cheeriest, squeakiest, sugarplum-drenched tone, even when it’s saying something kind of sad: “Three little kittens have lost their mittens and they began to cry!”

The book maker (uh, author?) clearly knows how to tap into infants’ deep love for happy, squeaky noises, as does the creator of Elmo. Scientists are also noticing this trend, and are starting to figure out exactly why these sounds are so alluring to little ones.

Babies are attracted to “happy” noises, whether they’re songs or words, scientists reported in June in Frontiers in Psychology. In preference tests, babies seemed more interested in happy-sounding “baby talk” than hummed songs. In the experiments, each sound, either a song or speech pattern, was linked to a computer monitor showing a carousel. When a baby looked at a particular monitor for a long time, researchers assumed the baby preferred that associated sound.

In another test, the babies didn’t seem to care whether song lyrics were sung happily or spoken happily. The cheery delivery was all that seemed to matter. Young babies may not be able to distinguish between songs and speech, as long as the noises are happy, the authors write. In fact, to some adults, high-pitched, slow tempo baby talk might sound a lot like music.

These exaggerated features of happy baby talk are hallmarks of sound play. And that’s something Baby V is doing a lot of these days. Her high-pitched squeals, loud and soft cries, sharp inhalations and bubble blowing are all vocal cord experiments, fun toys to play with while she figures out that those noises are attached to certain objects, ideas and emotions.

Baby V is starting to figure out that a few of these sounds come with meaning, and she obviously gets a huge kick out of that fact. Each time a big sweet dog would lumber over to her at Christmas, she would do a whole body wiggle and shriek, “Diggeeee!”

Note: To comment, Science News subscribing members must now establish a separate login relationship with Disqus. Click the Disqus icon below, enter your e-mail and click “forgot password” to reset your password. You may also log into Disqus using Facebook, Twitter or Google.

X