And some of us turn out to be better at solving it than others, the researchers claim.
Before children learn to speak, crying is their only means of verbal communication.
Known as “distress calls” or “crying,” these vocalizations are usually caused by pain, discomfort, hunger, or separation from a parent or other caregiver.
Some of the information carried in these calls is static and relates to the baby’s individual characteristics such as gender, age and size, while other parts are dynamic and reflect the current emotional and physiological state of the baby. It is related to pressing needs such as
A baby’s cry has universal acoustic characteristics.
They are longer, louder, and more variable in pitch than other less distressing signals, and it is widely believed that adults should be able to decipher that particular cry for help.
But a team of French scientists realized it’s not so simple.
To investigate whether adults could discriminate pain cries from mere unpleasant cries, we recruited a varying amount of people caring for babies, from absolute beginners to current parents of infants.
They gave everyone a short “training” phase, and each heard eight unpleasant cries from one baby over a period of several days.
Next, the ability to decipher the cries as discomfort or pain was tested.
‘Pain’ calls were recorded from vaccination appointments, and mild ‘uncomfortable’ calls were during bathing.
It turns out that experience is everything.
The inexperienced were less able to tell the difference between the cries than by chance, while the less experienced did slightly better.
Current parents and professional caregivers have done better than chance.
But the young baby’s parents were the clear winners.
They were able to identify the circumstances in which the baby was crying, even though they had never heard the baby cry.
Parents of older children and those with professional experience did not cope well with unfamiliar cries.
Findings suggest that the ability to decipher cries and identify when babies are in pain improves with exposure and experience.
“Only the parents of young babies were able to identify unknown baby cries they had never heard before,” said researcher Siloe Corvin.
Professional caregivers have had limited success in extending this ability to unknown babies.
“This was a surprise at first,” said co-author Camille Fauchon.
“However, this is consistent with the idea that experienced listeners may develop a resistance that reduces their sensitivity to acoustic cues of pain.”
The study does not address other age-old questions that mothers and fathers wonder about crying babies.
Deciphering Information in Baby Crying
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