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How Do Parents Understand A Baby's Cry?

Parents of young children and pediatric caregivers can distinguish between baby cries better than those with no child care experience.

By Monica Cull
Aug 8, 2022 7:00 PM


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A new study claims that those who have experience with babies learn the trait of distinguishing between a baby’s cry of discomfort from a cry of pain. Researchers from the University of Saint-Etienne, France, came to this conclusion during a broader study on how babies encode information in their cries. 

“We found that the ability to detect pain in cries — that is, to identify a pain cry from a mere discomfort cry — is modulated by experience of caring for babies,” says study co-author Nicolas Mathevon in a press release. “Current parents of young babies can identify a baby’s pain cries even if they have never heard this baby before, whereas inexperienced individuals are typically unable to do so.”

Caring and parenting young babies, according to the study, helps shape one's ability to understand a baby’s communication method — crying. 

For the study, Mathevon and his colleagues surveyed people with varying amounts of experience taking care of babies. They would play recordings of babies who were crying in pain and those crying in discomfort. Study participants ranged from people with no experience to current parents with young children and people with some babysitting experience to people with professional babysitting experience. 

People with young children identified the recordings much more accurately than those who had minimal to no experience with children, even though the baby was unfamiliar to them. And while parents with older children and professional caretakers did perform well in identifying the cries, they did not do as well as parents with young children. 

“Only parents of younger babies were also able to identify the crying contexts of an unknown baby they had never heard before,” says first author of the study Siloe Corvin in a press release.

“Professional pediatric caregivers are less successful at extending this ability to unknown babies,” says study co-author Camille Fauchon in a press release. “This was surprising at first, but it is consistent with the idea that experienced listeners may develop a resistance that decreases their sensitivity to acoustic cues of pain.”

Findings indicate that a baby’s cry has important information encoded. While most people can identify a baby crying, those who have more exposure and experience with babies can decode their messages of pain or discomfort. The researchers hope this study will help parents recognize cries of pain faster so they can respond more quickly. 

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