Baby Boy? Baby Girl? Baby X!

Mar 09 2011 Published by under Basic Science Posts

Perhaps some of you have heard of the fictional baby X (that's a PDF), a children's story piece which appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1975. I know that when I read it, I was amused, fascinated, and intrigued. The story is about a baby who is raised not as a girl, not as a boy, but as an X. The parents tell no one whether X is a boy or a girl, and many adventures ensue. I highly recommend you read the story, it's a fascinating reflection on what shapes us and forms us as boys and girls, beginning right at birth (and there is evidence of before birth shaping, too, but that's not what we're working on today).

Once you read the story of baby X, you might wonder, as I did, what the REAL effects of known gender have on how we deal with babies and young children. We might think we deal with babies fairly equally without regard to boy or girl, but...what DO we do? And more relevant to baby X, what do when do when we DON'T KNOW?

Welcome to the story of the REAL baby X.

Seavey, Katz, and Zalk. "Baby X: The effect of gender labels on adult responses to infants" Sex roles, 1975.

We probably all know on some level that boy babies and girl babies elicit different responses. Of course we all see the relatively overt ones, that boys are more often given trucks, and girls are more often given dolls, but the differences in how we treat girls and boys begin far before the first toy. Baby girls are treated as more delicate than baby boys, and baby boys get more attention for gross motor behavior (not peeing your pants, I'm talking moving arms and legs about freely). Not only that, mothers TOUCH male infants more initially than they do female infants, though this trend reverses at 6 months of age, and they verbalize to female infants more.

This study was one of the first to look at how much behavior toward a baby varied, simply by the gender information that was given about the child. They took 42 men and women (mostly grad students) who were NOT parents (they didn't want previous parenting experience to influence the results), and put them in a room with a baby, and three toys. The toys were a doll, a little football, and a rubber ring. The baby was 3 months and dressed in a yellow jumper.

For 1/3 of the people, they said the baby was a boy, for 1/3 it was a girl, and for 1/3, they didn't say anything, and when they asked, the scientists in charge said they couldn't remember which baby was being run. They then watched the adults interact with the baby for three minutes each, rating how often they touched the baby, what toys they tried, etc, etc.


You can see above the results for what toys the adults picked when they were told whether the baby was a boy or a girl, and when they weren't told anything.  The results broke down first by whether they thought the baby was a boy or a girl.  People were far more inclined to give the doll to a baby they thought was a girl, but the football wasn't really preferred when the baby was thought to be a boy, possibly due to a little football not being that great of a toy option for a 3 month old).  But the results really broke down when they didn't KNOW, and they broke down by the gender of the adult, rather than the (presumed) gender of the baby.  When it was a baby X, men were more likely to go neutral and try for the teething ring, while women still strongly preferred plying the baby with the doll.  This could mean that women may see a doll as less gendered, or it could mean that the difference based on presumed gender is just strongest in the male adults.


They also looked at how many times the baby was handled or touched during the encounters.


The highest ranking was 12, so as you can tell, people REALLY like to hold babies.  Yet again, there was a gender breakdown of how the adults reacted.  There appears to be slightly less handling of babies presumed female (backing up the study mentioned above), but the no label condition is the interesting one.  When confronted with no label, men held the baby LESS, while women held it MORE.


The authors also asked the study participants who got the "no label" condition, whether they thought they had a boy or a girl at the end.  While 57% of the men thought they had a male baby, 70% of the women thought the baby was a boy (in fact, in all cases, the baby was a girl.  There was only one test baby).  No matter what they thought, everyone said they could tell by the strength of the grip, by the lack of hair, or by how round and soft it was, whether it was a boy or a girl.


What can we get from this?  Well it looks like the biggest thing is that people have the MOST gendered response when they believe the baby to be a girl, using the doll with far more frequency than they used any object when they thought the baby was a boy.  I do think this could be an issue of footballs not being great playthings, maybe they could have tried...I dunno, a truck?


But of course you might be wondering, the baby WAS actually a girl.  Did they choose dolls most often because they somehow sensed it?  Nope.  The study was replicated in 1980 using two boy babies and a girl baby, with the same other conditions.  The replication actually found a STRONGER gender effect, with the men more likely to try the football regardless, and the women overwhelmingly more likely to try the doll regardless.  The authors from both studies say that the gender that the adults were fed strongly influenced how they interacted with the infant.  This is true, but I'm also very interested by the findings that women (especially in the second study) picked the doll more, while men picked the football.  In the no label condition, the women opted more for the teething ring, while the men went for the doll, which is somewhat of a reversal from the previous study.  The data from the second study is below.


The fact that the women picked the doll more and the men picked the ball more is interesting to me.  It makes me wonder WHY.  Are they trying to impose their own gender norms on the kid?  Or are they just reaching for the toy they themselves feel most comfortable with, without regard for the baby?


The two studies raise far more questions than they answer, but they make it very clear that we put plenty of gendered assumptions on to kids, even when they are three months old!  The participants ALWAYS wanted to guess the gender, and always thought they could back up their guesses.  So even with yellow jumpers and teething rings, it's going to take a lot more effort and more than a manual to raise a baby X.


Sidorowicz, L., & Lunney, G. (1980). Baby X revisited Sex Roles, 6 (1), 67-73 DOI: 10.1007/BF00288362

Seavey, Katz, and Zalk (1975). Baby X: The effect of gender labels on adult responses to infants Sex roles, 1 (2)

20 responses so far

  • speedwell says:

    That's really interesting... I tried to imagine myself as one of the test subjects, being presented with a random baby (perhaps in a quiet day care setting) and the three toys. I wouldn't pick the football because... well, what does a three-month-old want with a football? Presumably the baby can't fit it in its mouth, and it's a boring basic shape. The teething ring is there if the child shows signs of needing something to chew on, and that leaves the doll. Most dolls are humanoid and there are a billion ways to use it to play with a baby. It's appealing because you can play-interact with the doll and model social behavior.

    Did any of the studies present the test subjects in a room with the three toys and NO baby and see which of the toys they were more likely to pick up and handle?

    • scicurious says:

      None of these studies answered your question there. I did wonder why they didn't use maybe a truck instead of a football. Or, I don't know, maybe a dino toy? I consider them pretty non-gendered, but many people feel otherwise.

  • Sen says:

    That's an awful lot of data to negotiate. Who thought a football was a good idea anyway? Babies like to grab onto things and drool on them right? Footballs would be unwieldy. As a non-parent I think I'd usually pick the toy I felt least ridiculous seen handling, in the case of a baby probably the ring. I was never a doll sort of girl and the football would make no sense with a baby, regardless of gender.

    Also, adorable lobster baby is adorable.

  • becca says:

    I wasn't aware of the basic finding that women tend to hold male babies more. That is... kind of weird. I knew that boy babies get fatter and more protein rich breastmilk, but that's not something people have control over. At least... I think it isn't. Could holding your baby more change your breastmilk composition?

    Also, I wonder if men touch girl babies and boy babies the same. Maybe they are more rough with boy babies? 3 months might be too young for that. Yet I can't figure out why 'unlabled' would result in the least contact from men... unless maybe not being sure of 'how' to handle the baby is part of the issue.

    This makes me wonder... it looks like female subjects had a preference for giving the boy (labeled) babies the football and male subjects had a preference for giving the female (labeled) babies the doll... are cross-gender interactions the most strongly gender-norm enforcing?

    • Naomi Most says:

      Supposedly, yes, skin-to-skin contact actually changes the composition and/or the quantity of breastmilk produced. One of the articles I've recently looked at about this:

      The stimulation of oxytocin from skin contact may be the causal feature here, since oxytocin has a large role in breastmilk production (along with prolactin and estrogen).

      I'm personally interested in the subject of breastmilk production since I am exclusively breastfeeding my 5-month-old son but I occasionally have low-ish milk supply. Making a point of snuggling him without a shirt on once or twice a day has actually helped a lot.

  • Naomi Most says:

    As the parent of a 5-month-old baby boy, I can tell you without a doubt that even a Leeeeetle football is not really an appropriate toy for any 3-month-old. There just aren't enough obvious physical features.

    So that makes this experiment slightly disappointing, but I suppose it wouldn't affect things TOO much, since the adults chosen hadn't been parents and probably wouldn't be consciously avoiding the football from past experience.

    Using a rattle with little trucks on it or something would make the most sense to me...

    And as for the neutral option: a teething ring? At 3 months old? Even my 5-month-old who IS teething doesn't get what he's supposed to do with a teething ring yet.

  • Craig says:

    Any stats with this? All of that data is desperately in need of some error bars and significance tests...

  • FiSH says:

    Sci, I think that they needed to vary the age of the child a bit more. 3 month olds are pretty undifferentiated (unless you check underneath) - that's why parents dress them in pink and blue clothes; so that they don't get that embarrassing "she's such a pretty little girl" when it's a boy. In any case, although slightly provocative there are way too many holes here to draw anything near a conclusion. Also, direction of causality is often more complicated than you might think in studies like this - I remember a study years ago looking at maternal contact with babies - it ended up begin determined primarily by the baby's temperament (and genetics): smiling babies get held more.

    • scicurious says:

      Actually, the second study DID vary the age, the babies were between 3 and 10 months. Still got the results seen above. But yeah, the whole thing is very difficult to draw conclusions from, but still highly interesting in terms of how people impose gendering on children from a very young age.

  • irisevelyn says:

    Wait, in the second study the women picked the doll less often than the men: 73% of women versus 89% of men gave the doll to babies labeled female, and 36% of women gave the doll to unlabeled babies, while 50% of men gave the doll to unlabeled babies. (For babies labeled male, there is no difference).

    Am I missing something here?

  • Kaila says:

    I think that it should be each parent's individual choice. If the kid wants to play with a doll or a firetruck, let them choose. In the end they'll end up the way they want to and it's their decision. As a soon-to-be adult; I played with both firetrucks and dolls, and dinosaurs and teasets. I turned out okay; normal by most social-standards, and able to function in social situations. So it's a matter of prejudice whether or not you let your kids play with certain toys. But remember, in the end, they'll turn out how they want to.

  • Sundeep says:

    When does the authour use "x" to represent the non gender baby?

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