The Scene:
One rainy Saturday I decided to take my newly minted toddler to a large indoor play area, as did apparently every other parent in the area.

The sound was cacophonous, music playing in the background, children giggling, squealing, crying, calling for their friends and parents, I struggled to hear the mother next to me say that she should have known better than to come on a rainy Saturday.

I leaned in to better hear the other mother and when I turned back, my son was gone.  Moments before he was within arm’s reach, I had only turned away for five seconds. I turned in circles several times, I called his name but it was drowned out by the noise, my heart dropped, I broke out in a cold sweat.

Then I heard it, the sweetest, tiniest voice huffed, “Mama!” and I knew exactly who it was.

In that chaos, with a decibel level so high my ears rang once we left, I was able to distinguish my son’s voice from the sounds of the other 50 children.

What’s up with that?

Before that day I thought it was an “old wives tale” that mothers could identify their child’s from that of an unknown child.  Later that evening, I dug into the research and it turns out, over 50 years of research support that this ability is anything but a myth.

As early as two weeks postpartum between 33% and 90% of biological mothers can correctly identify their infant’s cry from that of another,[1] and by four-to-six months the accuracy increases to near 100%, with mothers able to identify the type of cry from their infant.  Historically, the research has shown that fathers haven’t exactly been on-par with mothers when it comes to identifying both their own infant’s cries and the type of cry.

So, we can close the case on this and chalk it up to maternal instinct, right?

Not exactly.

The studies that showed that fathers weren’t as good as mothers at identifying their infant’s cries were conducted in the early 80’s, a time when mothers traditionally spent more time with their children than fathers did.  Since the mid 70s fathers have increased the amount of time they spend with their children seven-fold, and the research is starting to reflect that.  A 2013 study found that fathers were just as likely to correctly identify both their child’s cry vs another child’s as well as the type of their child’s cry.

The same study found that the only variable that was predictive of a parent’s ability to differentiate their child’s cries from another is the amount of time spent with the child. If the amount of time spent with the child is truly the only variable to being able to pick it out from a crowd, then this ability should also hold true for adoptive parents and the parents of children born via surrogate.

Sometimes the old wives are right.



Valanne EH, Vuorenkoski V, Partanen TJ, Lind J, Wasz-Höckert O. (1967),  The ability of human mothers to identify the hunger cry signals of their own new-born infantsduring the lying-in period. Experientia. 23(9):768-9.

Formby, D. (1967), Maternal Recognition of Infant’s Cry. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 9: 293–298. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.1967.tb02271.x

Morsbach, G. and Bunting, C. (1979), Maternal Recognition of their Neonates’ Cries. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 21: 178–185. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.1979.tb01599.x

Green, J. A. and Gustafson, G. E. (1983), Individual recognition of human infants on the basis of cries alone. Dev. Psychobiol., 16: 485–493. doi: 10.1002/dev.420160604

Wiesenfeld, A.R., Zander-Malatesta, C., Deloach, L.L., (1981) Differential parental response to familiar and unfamiliar infant distress signals, Infant Behavior and Development, Volume 4, 281-295,

Sevilla, A., Borra, C., (2014), Parental time investments in children across countries and over time: What are the implications for inequality?

Gustafsson, E., Levrero, F., Reby, D., Mathevon, N., (2013) Fathers are just as good as mothers at recognizing the cries of their baby. Nature Communication, 4,

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Categories: Ages + Stages, Newborns + Infants, Science 101 + Mythbusting