What Science Hopes to Learn From a Baby’s Cries

What Science Hopes to Learn From a Baby’s Cries

Sumatha Reddy wrote that “subtle differences in infant wailing can provide important clues to later developmental and neurological conditions, such as poor language acquisition” on August 26, 2013 for the Wall Street Journal’s health section.  Her statement sums up the importance of observing a baby’s behavior right from the start of life, being tuned into an infant’s communication, which happens by way of spending quality time for extended periods of time with an infant (i.e., it can’t happen if you only interact with an infant a few moments a day), and knowing how to identify problems if and when they occur in order to start treatment earlier.

Reddy tells readers:

Researchers at Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital in Providence have devised a computer program to help analyze a baby’s cries. They hope to soon make it available to researchers world-wide looking to analyze crying patterns that can’t always be detected by the human ear.


Because a cry is controlled by cranial nerves, it can be a window into the brain. While researchers haven’t reached the stage where they can link cry characteristics with specific conditions, they’ve found that, on a group level, an infant’s nervous system and therefore cry can be affected by prenatal exposure to alcohol, birth injuries, and even related to later diagnoses of autism.

Reddy informs us that Philip Sanford Zeskind, director of neurodevelopmental research at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., said analyzing a baby’s cry is especially pertinent during the first two to three months before a baby picks up on social cues (ie: cry and mommy will come running).  She reminds us that “a cry can communicate information on how a baby gets aroused and how much sensory stimulation affects him.”  Pitch variability, time between cries, and how long they last can all be measured by a computer that analyzes a cry in various ways.  

I would close here in saying that a parent or caregiver does not need a computer or a series of computations to learn to “read” a baby’s cries.  I learned to do it to a great level of success with each of my five children.  Many authors, pediatricians, websites and child development experts encourage parents and caregivers to take the time to recognize a baby’s different cries for such needs as hunger, pain, wanting to be held, or wanting less/more stimulation, telling us that we can pay attention to pauses in the cries or how loud the cry is.  The computerized version of analyzing a baby’s cry will certainly be extremely useful in hospital settings in order for health care professionals to determine if there is something wrong with a baby’s nervous system for something as serious as autism, brain injury or fetal alcohol syndrome.  But, for the bulk of us, we can continue to pay close attention to a baby’s cry by spending plenty of time with him in order to build his communication skills, social-emotional skills, as well as his trust, attachment and bonding abilities.


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