The next time you hear a baby cry, take a good listen. It might tell you something about how its voice will sound decades later as an adult.

Research has already shown that the pitch of a person’s voice stays basically the same during adulthood and that how we sound as adults may be determined before puberty. A recent study indicated that the pitch of a boy’s voice at age 7 can mostly predict what he will sound like as an adult.

So when do our voices start emerging? One group of researchers hypothesised that differences in pitch would emerge very early — even in babies who have not yet learned how to speak.

Now, their new research — published last week in the journal
Biology Letters
— indicates that the pitch of babies’ cries at the age of 4 may predict the pitch of their speech at age 5.

In fact, the researchers said, the differences identifiable in babies’ whines can explain 41% of the differences in voice pitch that appear by age 5.

Taken together with previous studies, they said, this suggests a discovery that may be surprising: that “a substantial proportion” of the difference between how we sound in adulthood may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Indeed, they said, that would explain why there are differences in baby screams so soon after birth.

Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study, said research had shown that voice pitch affects our impressions of a person’s physical and social dominance, attractiveness and trust, which can have real-world consequences.

“There aren’t many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing,” she said, noting that it “suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development.”

To conduct their study, the team of five bioacoustic researchers recorded the voices of 15 French children — six girls and nine boys — from 4 to 5 years old. In each case, they had recordings of what they called “mild discomfort cries” that were obtained when the same children were from 2 to 5 months old.

Previous research has shown that although adult human voices range significantly based on sex, there are no sex differences in the pitch of babies’ cries or the speech of children before puberty.

The new study reinforced those findings and also found that the pitch of babies’ cries at 4 months old was “a significant and substantial predictor of the pitch of their speech” at age 5.

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