Why do babies cry?

For parents of newborns, the increased and often inconsolable crying of their infants during the first few months of life can be a frustrating and stressful experience.

Understanding these inconsolable bouts of crying is key to helping parents cope with the situation and develop appropriate responses, thus promoting the healthy social and emotional development of their children.

Crying is the primary means of communication available to young infants during a stage of development when they are almost completely dependent on others to meet their needs. Because crying typically elicits care, it also plays a role in developing the attachment relationship, as the infant becomes emotionally attached to the individual who most reliably responds to his or her crying.

While the quality and quantity of early crying can vary greatly, several studies have demonstrated that infants typically increase in their crying across the first 3 months, with a peak around 6 to 8 weeks of age. Crying decreases significantly around 3 to 4 months of age, coinciding with important developmental changes in affect, non-negative vocalizations and motor behaviour.

Two types of crying

Dr.Cynthia A.Stifter, of Pennsylvania State University, distinguishes two types of excessive crying. Unexplained, excessive or persistent crying in the first 3 months of life that occurs in an otherwise healthy infant is labelled “infant colic”, and affects about 10% of the population. Infants who fuss or cry for shorter periods of time, but who are difficult to soothe and whose fussiness persists throughout infancy, are said to have a “difficult temperament”.

Although there is ample evidence that colic is psychologically stressful for parents in the short term, the parent-infant relationship appears to heal soon after colic disappears. However, many infants labelled as having difficult temperament show numerous deficits in childhood and adolescence, including attention, behaviour and school problems.

Parent-child relationship

The data suggest that caring for a fussy, hard-to-soothe infant stresses the parenting system. For example, mothers of difficult infants have been found to be less responsive and exhibit lower levels of positive maternal behaviour. Dr. Debra M. Zeifman, of Vassar College, notes that early interventions targeting parental sensitivity and responsiveness have been successful in improving child development outcomes in such cases.

On the other hand, Dr. Philip Sanford Zeskind, of the Carolinas Medical Center, argues that it is the combination of cry sounds and adult characteristics that determines how the parent will respond and consequently, the impact on the infant’s psychosocial development.“Infant crying is as a biological siren, a signal that alerts and motivates the parent to attend to the infant’s needs,” he describes.

Infants who are at risk for poor psychosocial outcomes due to prenatal or other conditions — including brain damage, malnutrition, asphyxia and substance abuse during pregnancy — often have particularly high-pitched or hyperphonated cries. Yet this cry is a double edged sword. Some caregivers will try to do whatever is necessary to stop the sound, thus providing the kinds of auditory, visual and tactile forms of stimulation that promote infant development. Others, however, may respond defensively, resulting in actions that are detrimental to the infant’s well-being. In extreme cases, this may include physical abuse or neglect.

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