When interacting with infants, humans often alter their speech and song in ways thought to support communication. Theories of human child-rearing, informed by data on vocal signalling across species, predict that such alterations should appear globally. Here, we show acoustic differences between infant-directed and adult-directed vocalizations across cultures. We collected 1,615 recordings of infant- and adult-directed speech and song produced by 410 people in 21 urban, rural and small-scale societies. Infant-directedness was reliably classified from acoustic features only, with acoustic profiles of infant-directedness differing across language and music but in consistent fashions. We then studied listener sensitivity to these acoustic features. We played the recordings to 51,065 people from 187 countries, recruited via an English-language website, who guessed whether each vocalization was infant-directed. Their intuitions were more accurate than chance, predictable in part by common sets of acoustic features and robust to the effects of linguistic relatedness between vocalizer and listener. These findings inform hypotheses of the psychological functions and evolution of human communication.