Why Babies Cry

How to know if your baby is frightened or in pain.

Posted Dec 06, 2017

Some fun facts about infant wailing that will confirm you're in for it:

Infants cry about two hours a day.

Adults are wired to respond to infant crying about twice as fast as we do to other loud annoying sounds.

Cries from other baby animals are similar. In fact, when a biologist played an audio clip of cries from a fawn, kid goat, and human baby, and asked the audience to guess which was human, many weren’t sure. A deer will come running towards the sound of a baby bat, a sea lion pup, a kitten and kid goat.

Some baby animals have more distinctive cries. A cheetah cub separated from its mother chirps. Baby kangaroo cries sound like coughing.

As parents know only too well, the sounds of baby crying don’t really communicate the nature of the problem. Is Cupcake having a nightmare? Is Daisy’s diaper wet? You can glean clues from your child’s eyes, researchers in Valencia, Spain report.

The team videotaped and analyzed a baby who had just had a pinprick from a vaccination, to assess the sound of pain. To record an angry cry, the team pinned down the babies’ hands and feet so they felt trapped—and rightly irate. To provoke fear, the team made a loud sudden sound near the baby.

The videotapes enabled them to pin down the differences in the infant response. An angry baby tends to keep her eyes half-closed, gazing off to the side. Her cries get steadily louder. A frightened baby will hesitate, tense up in her face and then explode into a cry, with her eyes open and searching. After a needle prick, babies cry out immediately with their eyes squeezed shut, and stay at the same volume for the whole crying bout.

Why Do Babies Cry In Sleep?

Infants fuss sometimes while making the transition from light to deep sleep. In light sleep, Cupcake’s eyes close completely, but his eyelids flutter and his breathing is a bit irregular. He may startle, twitch, and even grin or continue to suck at the breast.

In babies, the initial light sleep lasts as long as twenty minutes. In deeper sleep, Cupcake is motionless and breathes more deeply and regularly. When that transition happens after you’ve put him down, you don’t want to interrupt it by scooping him back up. The cry will fade in a couple of minutes. 

If the crying escalates, you need to decide if he needs food or a new diaper. Don’t speak loudly or put on bright lights. You want to encourage him to go back to sleep. 

Is it Okay to Let Babies Cry It Out?

About 15 to 20 percent of children age six months and up are still awake enough during the night to worry their parents.

There are strategies to try. If you’ve put your child to bed and she’s crying, you can try waiting two minutes to respond and then gradually upping the wait to six minutes. That’s called “graduated extinction.” You can also try a technique called “bedtime fading” with several features, including moving bedtime in the desired direction by about fifteen minutes every two nights or so. Again, your child may cry. 

With either method, you probably don’t have to worry that you’ve damaged your child’s psyche, according to a well-designed 2016 study. Researchers, following a group of children (ages 6 months to 16 months) whose parents said that they had a “sleep problem,” divided them into three groups: the controls, who continued as usual, and a group subjected to bedtime fading and another subjected to graduated extinction.

After a year, mothers completed assessments of their children’s emotional and behavioral problems, and the researchers put the mother-child pairs through an experiment to judge how attached they were. It turned out that there were no signs that the children who had been nudged to sleep—which involved some “crying it out”—had more problems or a less secure attachment style. And these children had better nights, falling asleep more quickly and awakening less often than the controls. 

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere. 

More Posts