How Do They Know That?

How Do They Know That?

Have you heard or read that as early as a day or two of age, a newborn baby already shows a preference for his mother’s voice over the voices of other people?  I could ask you if you think that is true or not.  But the more important question is, how do they know that?  Is it like American Idol where a bunch of people on stage are talking and the baby sends a text indicating the one he likes best?  Do they give the baby a pad of paper and a pen so he can rate the voices from 1 to 10?

Well, believe it or not, it all comes down to “vigorous sucking.”  There is a machine to which the baby is hooked up, and he has a nipple in his mouth.  The machine records how many sucks per minute are taking place.  And as it turns out, when the mother’s voice is played, the baby sucks more vigorously than he does when other voices are played.

Now I’m willing to acknowledge that since he heard the mother’s voice while in the womb, that particular stimulus evokes a different response than other stimuli – some kind of familiarity response.  But when you say “shows a preference” you are implying that there is comparison, evaluation, decision-making, and other stuff going on – stuff that is far beyond the cognitive capacity of a newborn.  To say he is “showing a preference” really makes no sense and certainly is not supported by the evidence.

Most parents looking at research related to their little ones do not ask such questions.  They simply accept whatever conclusion is being stated by the researcher.  Unfortunately, that may lead mothers and fathers to make decisions on a rather questionable basis.  For instance, will being separated from your baby for much of the day diminish the strength of the emotional connection between you and your child?  Some studies say yes, other studies say no.  But how would they know that?  Do they stick some kind of thermometer in the kid’s heart and get a reading?  The fact is that although researchers use a variety of techniques, those techniques are highly questionable.  We really do not have any “scientific” way of measuring things like the strength of emotional connections.

So while I urge parents to review any and all research they consider relevant to their family, I also suggest they do so with a highly critical eye.  Developmental psychology is not a science like chemistry, physics, or even biology.  And while you may be wise to listen to what a researcher has to say, you would not necessarily be wise to give his statements any more credence than what your gut is telling you.

Dr. Mike

Michael K. Meyerhoff, Ed.D. (a.k.a. “Dr. Mike”) is a member of the management team at Romp n’ Roll.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Columbia University, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in human development from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also held a position as a researcher with the Harvard Preschool Project.  He may be contacted via e-mail at