Crying Babies and the Possibilities for Abuse (2)

We looked at the three types of crying in infants in our previous article as well as the established notion that adults actually find the sound of a baby crying aversive. Today we will look at ways that parents attempt to overcome their natural instincts towards the sound of babies crying, and the varying levels of success in doing so.

One of the most useful preparations for successful parenting is exposure via babysitting to easy-to-soothe babies. Babies do not come out of the womb with cookie-cutter personalities as any experienced parent knows only too well. Psychologically speaking, babies can be “easy” or “difficult” and this characteristic is largely determined by genes, although neonatal illness can make for a seemingly “difficult” baby due to pain and discomfort. Nevertheless, exposure in early life to an “easy” baby and the feelings of personal success and achievement in being able to soothe an “easy” baby certainly makes for more effective parenting when dealing with your own baby.

Conversely early experiences with “difficult” babies naturally tend to drive the adult towards egotistical behaviors, as outlined in the previous article in this series. Lack of success in attempting to soothe a “difficult” baby may result in a reluctance to persevere with a distressed baby, thus starting a vicious cycle in which the parent becomes increasingly frustrated with their unsuccessful attempts and effectively shuts down to the distress of their baby.

It is therefore not surprising to learn that parents who committed child abuse react differently to non-abusive parents when watching a videotape for a crying infant. The abusive parents felt more annoyance (egotistical behavior) and less sympathy (altruistic response) than the non-abusive parents. Increase in heart rate and blood pressure was also higher in abusive than non abusive parents, demonstrating that the former group were less able to cope with the sound of crying in a positive manner.

Studies have shown that adults in general are less sympathetic towards unknown babies than their own, indicating that humans in general are primed to care for their own babies rather than the babies of others. An interesting outcome of these crying studies was that the cries of premature and small-for-date babies were reported by adult listeners as being more unpleasant than the cries of full-term babies. This may be one explanation for the increased risk of child abuse in premature infants.

One final observation was that parents living in Third World countries respond, on average, much quicker to their crying infants than do parents in developed Western countries. The average reaction time among African hunter-gatherer tribes was 6 seconds as compared to over 3 minutes among middle-class Boston mothers. Researchers noted that for an infant in a Western culture, “an important lesson is how little effect crying had on his caretakers.”

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