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Sex Differences in Brain Responses to Infant Hunger Cries

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Newborn babies communicate many of their essential needs by crying. The response of an infant’s caregiver to cries is critical for infant survival. 

NIH researchers in the Section on Child and Family Research, within the Division of Intramural Research Office of the Scientific Director, and Italian colleagues conducted a study examining the effects of infant hunger cries on the brain activity of adults who are listening. 

The researchers found that when participants listened to typical infant cries, the brain activity of men and women showed significant differences. Brain scans showed that when hearing a hungry infant cry, women’s brains were more likely to quickly switch from a passive listening mode to an attentive mode, indicating that they focused their attention on the crying. In contrast, the men’s brains tended to remain in the passive listening mode during the infant crying sounds. 

Specifically, the two parts of the brain connected with mind wandering (the train of thought typical of awake rest) remained operating in men while the infant cried; in women, operation in these parts of the brain decreased. There were no differences in the brain patterns between parents and nonparents. 

Earlier studies showed that women are more likely than men to feel compassion when they hear an infant cry, and are more likely to want to care for the infant. The findings of this study indicate that men and women show marked differences in terms of attention as well, and that women’s brains appear to be hard-wired to respond to the cries of a hungry infant (PMID: 23282991).

Last Reviewed: 06/24/2014

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