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The Surprising Effects of Listening to a Baby Cry

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Parents who’ve done any form of cry-it-out sleep training — or all parents, quite frankly — are only too familiar with what happens when their baby cries: It feels horrendous. It feels immediately alarming, as though every nerve ending is suddenly subject to an electrical fire. Yesterday, the New York Times took a good look at some of the science behind a baby’s cry — and our sometimes surprising reactions.

Seeing some of the crying facts laid bare is a little staggering. Normal infants, for example, cry about two hours every day. What the Times calls a “notorious human crybaby” will sometimes cry for two hours, every two hours. Crying, of course, is essential to survival: Infant mice stripped of the ability to cry are ignored by their mothers, and quickly die.

Indeed, we’re hardwired to respond to crying. Researchers have “found that within 49 thousandths of a second of a recorded cry being played, the periaqueductal gray — an area deep in the midbrain that has long been linked to urgent, do-or-die behaviors — had blazed to attention, twice as fast as it reacted to dozens of other audio clips tested.”

What to do with that reaction, when all your attempts to calm a crying baby are met with more crying? Personally, I always rolled my eyes a little at anyone’s claim that I would “learn to decode” my baby’s cries, that the cries would sound different depending on what he wanted (it seemed like most of the time, he didn’t know?). But according to a study summarized by the Times, Spanish researchers have been able to categorize three cry types: anger, fear, and pain.

With their arms and legs pinned to provoke anger, mad babies usually kept their eyes half-open, looking off to the side as they cried. Babies frightened by a loud noise, “after an initial hesitation and tensing up of the facial muscles, emitted an explosive cry and kept their eyes open and searching the whole time.” For babies given a shot, the cries were immediate, forceful, and conducted with shut eyes.

On a more uplifting note, the Times presents some possible evidence against so-called “mommy brain”:

In another study, volunteers were asked to play a lab version of the popular game Whac-a-Mole by pressing down on an ever-shifting target button as rapidly as possible. Subjects then listened to recordings of babies crying, adults crying or birds singing, and played the game again.

“We saw better scores and more effortful pressing after the infant cries,” Dr. Young said.

Why not try this out at home? Your angry, fearful, or pained baby is primed to give you lots of opportunities.

The Effects of Listening to a Baby Cry