The human voice is a critical social cue, and listeners are extremely sensitive to the voices in their environment. One of the most significant voices in a child’s life is their mother’s voice: Infants discriminate their mother’s voice from the first days of life, and this stimulus is associated with guiding emotional and social function during development.
A mother’s voice is a constant and familiar presence in a child’s environment, beginning at a time when these vocal sounds and vibrations are conducted through the intrauterine environment to the foetus’ developing hearing pathways. Early exposure to a mother’s voice facilitates recognition of this sound source and establishes it as a preferred stimulus: From the first days of life, children can identify their mother’s voice and will actively work to hear this sound source in preference to unfamiliar female voices.
Throughout development, communicative cues in a mother’s voice convey critical information to guide behaviour and learning. For example, hearing a recording of one’s own mother’s voice is a source of emotional comfort for pre-schoolers during stressful situations, even when the content of the speech is meaningless. Furthermore, when school-age females experience a stressful situation, hearing their mother’s voice reduces children’s cortisol level, a biomarker of stress, and increases oxytocin levels, a hormone associated with social bonding. These studies have indicated the profound influence that a mother’s voice has on children’s cognitive, emotional and social function.
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