Anyone who has ever taken a long plane journey knows just how annoying babies can be. In the cramped, stuffy environment of a plane cabin sometimes the only relief you can find is in sleep. You may, miraculously, find yourself drifting off, only to be rudely brought back to Earth by the sound of a baby screaming its lungs out and the feeling of your ears splitting.The noise, it feels, seems perfectly designed to annoy. Once the baby starts, you know that the rest of your journey is going to be spent in agonising conciousness.
Why is it, though, that a baby’s cry is almost impossible to sleep through, while similarly loud noises such as traffic can be ignored? The answer, it seems, is related to what sounds babies themselves find hard to ignore.
Motherese is the name given to the cutsey, melodious language that mothers (and fathers) use when talking to their infant children. It is characterised by its slow pace, its high pitch, and also its exaggerated range in pitch compared with other forms of speech This phenomenon is near-universal, and has been found in a number of European, American, African, and Asian languages. Obviously, there must be a reason why we all instinctively use this type of speech when addressing babies. It is thought that the underdeveloped auditory systems of the babies require slow and exaggerated speech in order to extract meaning. This can help the infants pick up language skills at a faster rate.
That’s fair enough, but what has it got to do with screaming babies. Well – research, published in the journal of of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, has shown that motherese and screaming babies share the same acoustic properties. The authors, Rosemarie Chang and Nicholas Thompson, believe that exaggerating the range in pitch you talk in (from high to low), while keeping the average pitch high, and slowing the pace are all characteristic of a communication method used in attachment relationships. They even show that whining fits the bill as well – just imagine a 4-year-old pleading for a new toy.
The scientists tested to see whether whining, screaming and motherese would all have the same effect on someone trying to do a number of mathematical problems in a given time. They compared these sounds with normal speech and machine noises (a band-saw). As it turns out, participants listening to normal speech and machine noises could do more calculations in the time allowed, and got more answers correct. In other words, they were less distracted. Whining and crying came out as more distracting than motherese, which the scientists put down to the fact that they are designed to be manipulative. They are uniquely tailored to getting attention, which of course they need being completely dependent on adults to survive.
So, if you find yourself on a plane surrounded on all sides by bawling babies, and no air stewards are offering to give you a strong drink, you now know how to get their attention.