No language but a cry – infants’ crying as form of communication

Marjory Roberts


The cry of the “tiny soundmaker”is a language that researchers started to accurately translate only a quarter century ago. During the early 1960s, a team of Scandinavian investigators found auditory differences between the first birth cry and subsequent cries of hunger, pain and pleasure, for example, and between the cries of sick and healthy infants. Since then, others have identified distinct cries in babies with an assortment of problems, such as Down syndrome, brain damage, birth complications or premature birth. Even eventual victims of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and their siblings cry differently than do healthy babies.

Beyond providing clues to itshealth, however, an infant’s cry is a rudimentary form of communication. University of California psychiatrist Peter Ostwald and coworkers have found that even during the first 24 hours of life, newborns emit different sounds when a parent holds, bathes or feeds them–acoustical cues that parents “quickly come to understand,” they say.

“It is the sound of the cry that parentslisted to determine what the infant needs,” says psychologist Barry Lester of Brown University. “Parents tune in to this channel, learn to understand what their infant is trying to say … and establish the foundation of a communications system.”

Though babies do not speak for thefirst 3 or 4 months, their cries help in the development of speech by providing them with some awareness of their lips, tongue, palate, jaw and voice, says speech pathologist Thomas Murry of the University of California, San Diego. The importance of crying to the development of speech, Murry explains, is evident in the impaired speech of deaf babies. “At about 3 months of age, their crying starts to subside. They don’t get any feedback from their own voice, and as a result, their speech development is disrupted.”

As infants get older, they cry forshorter periods–periods approaching the length of syllables and words. “This becomes somewhat speechlike in terms of rate and rhythm by 9 months,” Murry says. At about this time, babies usually start to coo and babble, and by 1 year they begin to echo back some of the sounds that have filled their world.

Much of this crying also reflectsemotional development. In their first few months, babies cry not just because they are hungry or uncomfortable but because they want attention. At about their first birthday, they learn to cry for other reasons, such as fear of a stranger or frustration with a toy. Many of these cries may be difficult to interpret, but there is good evidence that the baby’s first voice has specific effects on parents. One study, for example, found a link between crying and breast-feeding. Forty first-time mothers listened to a tape of a baby’s hunger cry for seven minutes. A temperature change related to increased milk flow subsequently occurred in their breasts. The cries, in a sense, prepared the mothers for feeding.

Another study looked at parents’reactions to cries of their own and other infants. Mothers were almost always able to identify their own baby; fathers were right 84 percent of the time. Mothers were also significantly better than fathers at distinguishing between different types of cries, especially their own infant’s.

Psychologist Philip SanfordZeskind and Lester have found that both parents and nonparents can distinguish between cries of healthy infants and those of infants at risk for later health problems. But in a later study, Zeskind, now at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, found that parents respond differently to these “sick cries” than do nonparents. After listening to tapes of these cries, parents were more likely to view potentially comforting acts as “tender and caring” and more “immediately effective” in stopping the crying.

Why parents respond to theirbaby’s crying is open to debate. Some researchers say the cry is a distress signal that causes an innate response in the listener. Others feel that parents try to stop crying because it is unpleasant to them. Still others contend that a combination of empathy and altruism lies behind attempts to soothe a crying infant.

Regardless of their reasons, parentscan become extremely discouraged if their efforts to stop the crying fail. They may have difficulty, for example, in comforting a colicky baby, and when they are unsuccessful they may experience a host of negative feelings toward the child. According to Lester, “Parents feel rejected and may reject the baby in turn. [They] feel helpless …. Guilt feelings are also generated because they feel they have done something wrong.” Gradually, parents may stop taking proper care of the baby. And in extreme cases, child abuse may result.

Child abusers and nonabusers responddifferently to a crying baby, according to psychologist Ann Frodi at the University of Rochester and psychologist Michael Lamb of the University of Utah. When they showed movies of crying and smiling babies to a group of abusive and nonabusive mothers, the abusers showed stronger physiological reactions to the crying infant–greater increases in heart rate and blood pressure, for example–and they reported more annoyance and less sympathy with it. Even the smile caused abusive mothers to react as though they “were attempting to block [it] out.” “Abusers tend to see both the cry and the smile as demanding something from them,” Frodi says. “They may see both signals as demands that they are unsuccessful at dealing with.”

In a recent study, Frodi and colleaguesfound that pregnant women, too, register characteristic responses to a crying infant. The researchers monitored expectant mothers as they watched the same movie the abusers had seen. The new mothers rated their babies’ temperament when the infants were 4 months old. Those who saw their infant as difficult had had stronger physiological reactions to the film they viewed during pregnancy. These women had learned a particular response to infants long before they became mothers, perhaps even as children, Frodi says.

A baby’s cry, then, is a languagethat can affect the kind of care it receives, and much depends on how parents perceive it. Parents must respond to an infant’s needs as though the child speaks rather than cries, a difficult lesson to learn in a language nobody can teach.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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