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Male babies talk more than females during the first year

The fascinating world of infant communication is peppered with squeals, vowel-like sounds, growls, and short, word-like sounds such as “ba” or “aga”. These are known as protophones, the precursors to speech

Over time, these protophones evolve into early words, then gradually transform into phrases and sentences as the child grows older.

While it’s a known fact that some babies are naturally more “talkative” than others, new research published in the journal iScience uncovers fascinating insights into gender differences in these early vocalizations. 

The researchers have discovered that during the first year of life, male babies appear to “talk” more than their female counterparts. This finding confirms earlier, smaller studies by the same team but remains a surprising revelation.

Why this finding was a surprise to scientists

Why the surprise? It challenges a long-standing belief that females typically have a language advantage over males. This discrepancy between the study results and traditional expectations offers compelling implications for understanding the evolutionary foundations of language, say the researchers.

“Females are believed widely to have a small but discernible advantage over males in language,” said D. Kimbrough Oller of The University of Memphis. “However, our findings show that in the first year, males tend to produce more speech-like vocalizations than females.”

However, the early language advantage shown by male infants is transient. “While boys showed higher rates of vocalization in the first year, girls caught up and surpassed boys by the end of the second year,” Oller noted.

Accidental discovery

Interestingly, Oller and his colleagues did not initially set out to examine gender differences. They were primarily interested in the origins of language in infancy. Had they been asked to predict the results, they would have guessed that female infants might produce more sounds than males. Yet, the outcome was consistent with their previous study published in Current Biology in 2020.

The team undertook a more extensive study to validate this unexpected pattern. The analysis involved over 450,000 hours of all-day recordings of 5,899 infants using a device about the size of an iPod. The recordings were automatically analyzed to count infant and adult utterances across the first two years of life.

“This is the biggest sample for any study ever conducted on language development, as far as we know,” said Oller.

The data collected showed that male infants made about 10% more utterances in the first year compared to females. 

However, in the second year, the trend reversed, with female infants making about 7% more sounds than males. Notably, this gender difference was present despite the fact that the adults caring for these infants spoke more words to female infants in both years compared to males.

Things begin to change in the second year of life

The researchers speculate that the higher early vocal activity of male infants might simply be a reflection of their generally higher activity levels. However, this explanation doesn’t hold up well, as male infants’ increased vocalizations diminish by 16 months, while their higher physical activity levels persist.

Oller suggests these findings could align with an evolutionary theory. It’s possible that infants are programmed to make many sounds early on to communicate their health and vitality, thus improving their chances of survival.

If that’s the case, why would male infants be more vocal than females in the first year but not later?

“We think it may be because boys are more vulnerable to dying in the first year than girls,” said Oller. “Given the higher mortality rates of males in the first year, they may be under especially high evolutionary pressure to produce vocal fitness signals.” 

By the second year of life, as mortality rates decrease dramatically for both genders, the pressure on special fitness signaling is lower for both boys and girls, explained Oller.

The researchers said that further research is needed to understand how caregivers react to these baby sounds.

“We anticipate that caregivers will show discernible reactions of interest and of being charmed by the speech-like sounds,” said Oller. He noted that these vocalizations from babies elicit genuine feelings of affection in caregivers, along with a willingness to invest in the infants’ well-being.

Next follow-up experiment is on the drawing board

The team is curious to see how caregivers will react differently to the speech-like sounds of boys and girls. However, there’s a catch – the caregivers might need to be informed about the baby’s gender beforehand. That’s because it’s still unknown whether the gender can be discerned merely from these vocalizations.

In conclusion, this groundbreaking research offers valuable insights into the early language development of infants and the surprising ways in which gender differences can manifest. While the male infants’ early advantage in vocalization is short-lived, it points towards fascinating evolutionary strategies possibly linked to survival.

As the researchers continue to uncover more about the fascinating journey of language development, we’ll gain a better understanding of the incredible complexity and resilience of human communication. As they say, every “ba” or “aga” is a step towards the intricate symphony of human language.

More about infant cognitive development

Infant cognitive development is a fascinating process that unfolds across several stages, with milestones in areas such as language acquisition, motor skills, and reasoning ability. Here’s an overview of key developmental stages, although it’s important to note that individual children may progress at different rates:

Language Development

  • 0-5 Months: Infants start to make sense of the world around them through sounds. They will start to recognize their parent’s voices and begin cooing and making simple vowel sounds.
  • 6-11 Months: During this stage, babies will start babbling, making sounds like “ba-ba” or “ma-ma.” They are exploring the sounds that they can make with their mouths and learning to associate them with reactions from adults.
  • 12-17 Months: This is the typical age for first words. Initially, vocabulary grows slowly, and words may not always be used correctly. However, babies at this stage are increasingly capable of understanding simple instructions.
  • 18-24 Months: Vocabulary begins to increase more rapidly, and infants may start to form simple two-word phrases. They are also better at understanding more complex instructions.

Motor Development

  • 0-6 Months: Infants develop their gross motor skills, learning to roll over, sit up with support, and eventually sit independently.
  • 7-12 Months: During this stage, babies usually learn to crawl, pull up to a standing position, and may even take their first steps.
  • 13-18 Months: Toddlers will become more confident in walking and will begin to explore running, climbing, and possibly even jumping. Fine motor skills also improve, allowing them to manipulate objects with more precision.

Reasoning and Decision-Making

The development of reasoning skills and decision-making is a bit more complex. While it’s clear that infants and toddlers are constantly learning and experimenting with their environment, the cognitive processes behind these activities are not as well-understood.

  • 0-12 Months: Infants develop object permanence, the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they can’t be seen. This is a foundational concept in understanding cause-and-effect relationships.
  • 12-24 Months: Toddlers begin to show early signs of problem-solving skills, such as pushing a stool to reach a toy on a high shelf. They also start to understand more complex cause-and-effect relationships.
  • 2-3 Years: Around this age, children begin to develop early symbolic play and imagination, which contribute to decision-making and reasoning. They may also begin to understand simple rules and routines.
  • 3-5 Years: Preschool-aged children begin to demonstrate more sophisticated reasoning abilities. They can understand basic logic and can solve more complex problems. They also begin to understand the concept of time and can plan for future events.

Again, these are general guidelines and there can be significant variation in the timing and progression of these milestones. It’s also important to remember that cognitive development in infants and children is influenced by many factors, including genetics, environment, and parental interaction. 


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