Responding to Baby’s Cries

By Pam Henderson

I remember being told before my oldest daughter was born that I would be able to distinguish her cries from all of the other babies’ cries in the hospital nursery. It was true. And, when I heard those cries, I just had to hold her.

As it turns out, mine was the universal response to my baby’s cry. A recent study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which has been widely reported by news outlets, followed 684 first-time healthy mothers from the United States and 10 other countries scattered between South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Researchers found that these mothers were rather consistent in picking up their babies within 5 seconds of crying. The babies were picked up, held and talked to. It’s almost as if new mothers are hard-wired to respond to their baby’s cries. Surprisingly, researchers found no measurable difference in response despite the mothers living in different cultures, in different parts of the world.   

The researchers also scanned the brains of 43 other healthy first-time mothers. They found that when these mothers heard infant cries, a region of the brain which is tied to the intention to move, grasp and speak were activated. Some experts refer to this as the “alarm” region of the brain. It makes sense that a cry would set a mother into action, because a cry, after all, is an alarm.

Much more research needs to be done, but there is hope that this new information will inform understanding of the behavioral and nervous system response to crying. This study was only performed with new mothers. It goes without saying that countless fathers are equally as attentive to their babies’ cries.

This study may also pave the way for experts to look at how the brain responds with mothers who maltreat. It raises the question of whether the brain responds differently for non-normal variations in parenting, as the researchers call maltreatment. Sadly, crying is a trigger to maltreatment.

Crying is how babies communicate with the world around them. It signals hunger, pain, sleepiness, separation anxiety, need for attention. Generally, parents quickly learn to differentiate a cry of pain from a cry of boredom. If your baby is healthy, recently fed and is already wearing a clean diaper, you may want to try out these tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics to soothe your little one:

For my daughters, I sang to them a lot and made up stories. It seemed to do the trick. My parents resorted to driving me around in the car to get me to sleep. They claim that I was colicky for two years, but I don’t remember any of it. To this day, I still fall asleep in the car.