How a baby’s crying can make you feel
Do different baby cries have different meanings? Some babies scream even for little problems
At delivery, your baby’s powerful wails are a welcome sign that you’ve given birth to a healthy child. However, if after the first week or two your infant continues to scream, his crying may become the last thing you want to hear! But we should be grateful for our babies’ crying—it’s one of their most wonderful abilities.
During the first few months of life, your baby will have no problem getting by without the foggiest idea of how to smile or talk, but he would be in terrible danger if he couldn’t call out to you. Getting your attention is so important that your newborn can cry from the moment his head pops out of you. This great ability is called the “crying reflex.”
The Crying Reflex: Nature’s Brilliant Solution for Getting a Cavewoman’s Attention!
A baby’s cry … cries to be turned off.
Peter Ostwald, Soundmaking: The Acoustic Communication of Emotion
My guess is that millions of years ago, a Stone Age baby accidentally was born with a perfect way for getting his mother to come to him—screaming. Even if he yelped just because he had hiccups or had scared himself, his mom appeared in seconds.
Other baby animals also need to get their mother’s attention quickly, but they would never scream for it. Loud crying could be fatal for a young rabbit or a monkey, because the sound might reveal his location to a hungry lion. For this reason, kittens meekly meow for help, squirrel monkeys make soft beeping sounds when they fall out of trees, and baby gorillas barely even whimper when they need their moms.
Baby humans, on the other hand, gave up such caution a long time ago. Whenever they needed their cavemom’s attention, they wailed! Perhaps such brash, demanding babies were safe because their parents were able to fight off dangerous animals. Or perhaps a powerful cry was the only sound that could carry far enough for a baby’s mom to hear him while working or chatting with friends outside the cave. Some scientists even believe that successive generations of babies began to shriek louder and louder because such noisy infants received more food and attention to keep them quiet, and thus were more likely to survive.
Why are babies born with a cry reflex … but not a laugh reflex?
Wouldn’t it be fun if babies were born laughing? Of course it would, but there are two very good reasons why newborns can cry up a storm yet can’t giggle.
First, crying is easier than laughing. It takes less coordination, because it’s one continuous sound made with each breath. Laughter, on the other hand, is a series of rapid, short sounds strung together like pearls on a single breath.
And while laughter is helpful for social play when your baby is older, crying is crucial for a baby’s minute-to-minute survival, from his first day of life.
We may never know exactly when or how ancient human babies began to cry, yet it’s clear that the cave babies who survived and passed their genes on to us were those who could “raise a ruckus.”
Your baby’s shrill cry is powerful enough to yank you out of bed or hoist you off the toilet with your pants down. (Not bad for a ten-pound weakling!) However, it is a mistake to think your baby is crying because he’s trying to call you for help. During the first few months, trying to get your attention is the furthest thing from your crying baby’s mind. In fact, your baby has absolutely no idea he’s even sending you a message.
When you hear your two-week-old scream, you’re not getting a communication from him; rather you’re accidentally eavesdropping on his conversation … with himself. His cries are like agitated complaints he’s muttering to himself, “Gosh, I’m hungry,” or “Boy, I’m cold.” Since you’re right next to him, you hear his grumbles and want to lovingly respond, “What’s the matter, sweetheart? You sound upset.”
In a few months, your baby will begin to figure out that crying makes you come. By four to six months your baby will develop a vocabulary of coos, bleats, and yells to communicate specific needs. This is when you may get the sense that your baby is beginning to make “phony” little shrieks to get you to come. But for now, don’t worry that responding to his cries will teach him bad habits. Training your baby not to be manipulative will become an important lesson during the second six months of his life. For the moment you want him to learn that you’ll come whenever he cries. This message of predictable, consistent love and support is exactly what will nurture his trust in you.