Why do newborns cry?
It is not easy to know why a newborn cries, especially amongst first-time parents. Although the main reasons are hunger, pain, anger and fear, adults cannot easily recognise which emotion is the cause of the tears.
“Crying is a baby’s principal means of communicating its negative emotions and in the majority of cases the only way they have to express them,” as explained by Mariano Chóliz, researcher at the University of Valencia.
Chóliz participates in a study along with experts from the University of Murcia and the National University of Distance Education (UNED) which describes the differences in the weeping pattern in a sample of 20 babies between 3 and 18 months caused by the three characteristic emotions: fear, anger and pain.
In addition, the team observed the accuracy of adults in recognising the emotion that causes the babies to cry, analysing the affective reaction of observers before the sobbing.
According to the results published recently in the Spanish Journal of Psychology, the main differences manifest in eye activity and the dynamics of the cry.
“When babies cry because of anger or fear, they keep their eyes open but keep them closed when crying in pain,” states the researcher.
As for the dynamic of the cry, both the gestures and the intensity of the cry gradually increase if the baby is angry. On the contrary, the cry is as intense as can be in the case of pain and fear.
The adults do not properly identify which emotion is causing the cry, especially in the case of anger and fear.
Nonetheless, “although the observers cannot recognise the cause properly, when babies cry because they are in pain, this causes a more intense affective reaction than when they cry because of angry or fear,” outlines Chóliz.
For the experts, the fact that pain is the most easily recognisable emotion can have an adaptive explanation, since crying is a warning of a potentially serious threat to health or survival and thus requires the carer to respond urgently.
Anger, fear and pain
When a baby cries, facial muscle activity is characterised by lots of tension in the forehead, eyebrows or lips, opening of the mouth and raised cheeks. The researchers observed different patterns between the three negative emotions.
As Chóliz notices, when angry the majority of babies keep their eyes half-closed, either looking in apparently no direction or in a fixed and prominent manner. Their mouth is either open or half-open and the intensity of their cry increases progressively.
In the case of fear, the eyes remain open almost all the time. Furthermore, at times the infants have a penetrating look and move their head backwards. Their cry seems to be explosive after a gradual increase in tension.
Lastly, pain manifests as constantly closed eyes and when the eyes do open it is only for a few moments and a distant look is held. In addition, there is a high level of tension in the eye area and the forehead remains frowned. The cry begins at maximum intensity, starting suddenly and immediately after the stimulus.
Mariano Chóliz, Enrique G. Fernández-Abascal, Francisco Martínez-Sánchez. Infant Crying: Pattern of Weeping, Recognition of Emotion and Affective Reactions in Observers. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 2012; 15 (3) DOI:
Responding Sensitively to Infant Crying
Infant and Preschool Learning research has told us that infants whose mothers respond quickly, consistently, and warmly when they cry have healthier emotional development than infants whose mothers are less sensitive to their cries. A new study has found that mothers whose childhood experiences with caregivers was positive and those who have come to terms with negative experiences are more infant-oriented when they see videos of babies crying and respond more sensitively to their own babies’ cries.
The researchers sought to identify characteristics that differentiate between mothers who behave sensitively when their infants cry and mothers who don’t.
“Responding sensitively to infant crying is a difficult yet important task,” notes Esther M. Leerkes, professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who led the study. “Some mothers may need help controlling their own distress and interpreting babies’ crying as an attempt to communicate need or discomfort. Home visiting programs or parenting classes that help parents become more aware of stress and teach ways to reduce it, as well as individualized parent education efforts, may help build these skills.”
Mothers who experienced depression or had difficulty controlling their emotions responded to videos of babies crying by focusing on themselves rather than seeing the needs of the distressed babies as the priority. Mothers whose physical stress was poorly controlled (measured, for example, by skin conductance — how much sweat was on their skin in response to the stress — and rapid heart rate) in response to the videos were also more likely to focus on themselves and responded more negatively to the videos (they perceived crying as a nuisance or manipulation). In addition, mothers who responded more negatively and focused more on themselves prenatally were less sensitive to their own infants when the babies were 6 months old.
The researchers observed 259 first-time mothers from a range of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds who were followed from pregnancy until their babies were 6 months old. Expectant mothers filled out questionnaires about their personalities and emotional characteristics, and they were interviewed about their childhood experiences with their parents or caregivers, including how those experiences affected them over time. Next, the expectant mothers watched short videos of four crying babies. Their skin conductance and heart rate were measured while they watched to determine how their bodies reacted physiologically when exposed to the crying.
After watching the videos, the mothers answered questions to determine how they thought and felt about the crying. Mothers were considered to be infant-oriented in their thinking about crying if they could accurately identify infant distress, reported feeling empathy for the infants, thought the infants were crying because they needed care, and believed crying is how babies communicate.
Mothers were considered mother-oriented in their thinking about crying if they believed crying was a nuisance and thought the babies in the video were crying to be manipulative. Months later, 211 of the original 259 mothers and their 6-month-olds were videotaped together during three activities.
The study also found that what predicted how mothers thought, felt, and behaved in response to infant crying didn’t differ by race. “This adds to evidence supporting the universality of the processes that promote mothers’ sensitivity to distress,” notes Leerkes.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with input from colleagues at Fuller Theological Seminary and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.