Why is my baby crying? Experience, not instinct, may tell you - study

Is parental instinct or experience the factor in determining if someone can tell the reason behind why their baby is crying? This study has the answer.

 Crying baby. What are some tips for caring for newborns? (Illustrative). (photo credit: Tim Bish/Unsplash)
Crying baby. What are some tips for caring for newborns? (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Tim Bish/Unsplash)

What does a baby's crying mean? Does it signify pain? Distress? Discomfort? Hunger? It depends, and experience, rather than parental instinct, may be how you figure that out, according to a new study.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Current Biology.

The study sheds light on the behavior of babies, how the adults around them understand what they mean, and what exactly lets someone understand them.

Baby, why are you crying?

Babies cry. In fact, aside from sleeping and eating, this is essentially almost all that they do for a very long time. 

This is a fact that is something that many parents are forced to deal with. And it can be quite frustrating. Not just because the noise of the crying can be very disruptive, but because you might not be aware of just how to stop it.

Baby crying [Illustrative] (credit: PIXABAY)Baby crying [Illustrative] (credit: PIXABAY)

To put it another way, you might not know what your baby is crying about and, therefore, what they need. 

The fact that babies cry so much makes sense, as they don't yet know how to speak. As such, this is really the only way they can communicate.

But while you might not know how to interpret the meaning behind the crying, that isn't the case for everyone, especially people who are experienced with babies. Many parents and professional caregivers are able to differentiate between the cries and ascertain their meanings.

In fact, some of them are able to identify the meaning of a baby's cries - particularly pain cries - even if they haven't met the baby before.

But it isn't like there is a baby cry translator or an option for subtitles. So how do they do this? 

Cry baby cry, make your mother sigh

This was exactly what the researchers behind this study sought to answer. 

Specifically, they wanted to know if this was a case of experience and practice making perfect or parental instincts.

In order to test this, the researchers recorded two different baby cries. The first was meant to indicate mild discomfort during bathing, while the second was pain from getting vaccinated.

Adult participants were then subjected to a psychoacoustic experiment, the term psychoacoustic referring to the field of study of how humans perceive sounds and the psychological responses to different sounds.

The participants were divided into a few categories: parents with children five years old and up; parents with children under the age of two; non-parents with extensive professional experience in caregiving; non-parents with moderate non-professional experience in this field, such as caring for younger siblings; and people with no experience with babies whatsoever.

There were two phases to this test. The first, the training phase, saw each participant exposed to eight different cries of discomfort over the course of two days. 

The second phase, the testing phase, took place a few hours after, where the participants listened to cries of discomfort and cries of pain. Notably, each participant had been assigned a baby in the training phase, and the cries they heard in that phase came just from that baby. But in the testing phase, they heard two cries of pain and two cries of discomfort from their assigned baby and two cries of pain and two cries of discomfort from a baby they had never heard before.

At this point, the participants were told to label these cries as either cries of discomfort or cries of pain.

The results of this study indicated that, as predicted by the researchers, having prior experience with babies mattered considerably in identifying the cries. Less experience with babies generally correlated with less ability to identify the cries.

Although, it was also noted that parents with children aged five and older as well as non-parents with extensive experience did not perform as well as some of the demographics.

Specifically, they were unable to identify the nature of a baby's crying when it was an unfamiliar baby. The only demographic that was able to do this was the parents who had children aged two and under.

As for why that was the case, there is actually a reason. Essentially, being too experienced with these cries might mean that the listener is resistant to the cries. Their sensitivity is lowered and as a result, they aren't able to identify the pain cries as easily.

With this in mind, the study's conclusion is that when it comes to understanding baby cries, it isn't about parental instincts, but practice and experience with babies.