If you’ve ever talked to a baby, you’ve likely raised your pitch, made silly sounds, or used a sing-song voice. You’re not alone.
In a landmark study spanning six continents, researchers affiliated with the Music Lab found striking consistencies in the ways adults spoke and sang to infants. The findings, published this week in Nature Human Behaviour, point to possible common functions of certain kinds of speech and song patterns for infant development and parent-child bonding.
Over a period of three years, researchers coordinated the collection of 1,615 recordings from 21 cultures with varying degrees of connectedness to the rest of the world. From an urban English-speaking environment in San Diego to a Hadza hunter-gatherer society in East Africa, adults changed their speech patterns when interacting with infants. No previous study has compared infant-directed vocalizations across such a wide range of cultures.
“For about as long as people have been studying parents and babies, psychologists have theorized that there are special kinds of vocalizations for babies, but it’s difficult to study that trend in diverse groups of people all over the world,” said Samuel Mehr, who led the project as director of the Music Lab and a Harvard research associate before taking a new role as a senior scientist at Yale’s Haskins Laboratories. “Because of this big international collaboration, we were able to test this question rigorously in many different sites around the world.”