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Crying Babies and the Possibilities for Abuse (1)

A baby’s cry is a survival mechanism as it draws attention to an infant in distress. Three distinct patterns of crying have been documented in newborns and it is interesting to observe the way primary caregivers relate to each of these specific crying patterns.

The first type of cry is the so-called “rhythmic” cry, which consists of a regular pulsating sequence of cries and gasps. It usually denotes that baby is uncomfortable, hungry or bored. The second type of cry is labeled the “mad” cry and occurs when the infant is frustrated, as would occur if a feeding baby were suddenly to be removed from the nipple. It is a much more shrill and distressed cry and less pulsating than the “rhythmic” cry, to which it often reverts to if not immediately satisfied.

The third type of cry is the “pain” cry which consists of one long scream followed by silence and then by a sharp intake of breath. It is this style of crying that initiates the greatest reaction in the parent.

Despite crying being an evolutionary survival tool and an obvious call for help from a distressed infant, the problem is that loud cries from infants are actually aversive to the majority of adults. This means that adults must fight their natural instincts to actually leave the noise of the incessant crying behind them, rather than to approach the baby to soothe him or her.

Researchers have found that adult reactions to crying fall into two categories: “egotistical” or “altruistic.” The former results in behaviors such as leaving the room, losing the door or plugging the ears. The altruistic approach occurs when the carer picks up the distressed baby and attempts to soothe, rock, or sing to the baby, plus attending to obvious mechanical needs such as feeding and changing.

Given that all adults have an egotistical side when it comes to the screaming of babies, how have we as a species come to modify that aspect of ourselves so that we can successfully rear happy, healthy babies? Well, in the next article on babies and crying we will look at the various degrees of success that we humans have at “bringing up baby.”


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