Fear, Anger Or Pain? Understanding Why Babies Cry
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Researchers focus a lot of attention on the youngest among us. Through different studies, attempts have been made to understand just how infants communicate and what their motivations are for offering up their cryptic little messages.
The cognitive development of infants — and the challenge of understanding it — stems to the fact infants are endowed with only a very limited ability to communicate. For the youngest infants, their communication abilities might best be described as employing only a binary subset of language skills. They smile when they are happy, and they cry when they are displeased. In between these two polar opposites is an untapped trove of communication options.
RedOrbit´s own Jedidiah Becker previously wrote about a large UK-based study on the dynamics of infants´ cognitive development and how it is reflected in their ability to laugh. In that study, a research team led Dr. Caspar Addyman of Birbeck University of London studied the laughter of hundreds of babies. As Addyman explained in an interview with redOrbit, his team´s goal was to gain a “social and cognitive perspective” on infant laughter and to understand how it changes as they mature.
As Addyman pointed out at the time: “Much work is undertaken on infants´ social and emotional development but up until now laughter has been strangely neglected, with most studies focusing on moments of stress and confusion.”
It would seem that Addyman is absolutely correct in stating that other researchers tend to train their focus on the more caustic forms of communication coming from infants. That doesn´t mean there isn´t much to learn from understanding the motivations behind crying, however.
HOW WELL DO WE READ BABIES?
A new collaborative study out of Spain led by Mariano ChÃ³liz MontaÃ±Ã©s of the University of Valencia, along with colleagues from the University of Murcia and the National University of Distance Education (UNED), is looking into the adult caregivers´ accuracy in recognizing the emotions that cause a baby to cry.
The team sampled 20 infants ages 3 to 18 months in the hopes they might be able to describe the different crying patterns of the infant subjects. Their findings allowed them to zero in on three characteristic emotions: fear, anger and pain.
For the first-time parent, one of the more frustrating things to encounter is a crying baby who is unable to tell you exactly why they are crying. The primary reasons why most infants offer up a sob are hunger, pain, anger and fear. However, adults are not usually able to easily recognize which of the above is the cause for the tears.
“Crying is a baby’s principal means of communicating its negative emotions and in the majority of cases the only way they have to express them,” explained ChÃ³liz.
The research team also made a priority of observing the adult caregiver and their accuracy in recognizing the emotion responsible for making the baby cry. This was achieved by analyzing the affective reaction of the caregiver just before the crying commenced.
The team published their findings in The Spanish Journal of Psychology. In their report, they state the main differences between an infant´s motivations for crying are distinguishable by studying their eye activity as well as the dynamic of the cry.
“When babies cry because of anger or fear, they keep their eyes open but keep them closed when crying in pain,” explain the authors.
The dynamic of the cry refers both to gestures made by the infant as well as the intensity of the cry. For instance, the intensity of the cry will gradually increase if the baby is crying because of anger. On the other hand, if a child is crying out of pain or fear, the intensity of the cry starts out at a very high level and is maintained until either the pain or fear subsides.
Among the caregivers being observed, the team noted that adults often had difficulty in properly identifying — especially in cases of anger or fear — which emotion was responsible for the outburst.
ChÃ³liz points out: “Although the observers cannot recognize the cause properly, when babies cry because they are in pain, this causes a more intense affective reaction than when they cry because of anger or fear.”
This seemed an important point for the research team. They claim the fact that pain is the most easily recognizable emotion and can have an adaptive explanation. This is because an infant´s cry is meant to be a warning of a potentially serious threat to both their health and survival. As such, it typically requires the caregiver to respond with some urgency.
ANGER, FEAR AND PAIN
ChÃ³liz and colleagues were able to observe various facial cues that are associated with different emotions that lead to crying in infants. When an infant cries, the facial muscles typically contract, presenting an increase in tension in the forehead, eyebrows and lips. Infants also tend to open their mouths and raise their cheeks. This study was able to observe different patterns of facial muscle activity associated with each of the three negative emotions they were focused on.
According to ChÃ³liz, anger led infants to keep their eyes half-closed. The stare of the infants through their half-opened eyes may fix in no apparent direction, or they may stare intently at one point in the distance. Angry infants also tended to keep their mouths fully open or half-open. Moreover, the cry associated with anger gradually increases in intensity until the caregiver attempts to mollify the child.
Fear, on the other hand, finds the infants leaving their eyes open wide for almost the entire episode. The gaze from the infant is often characterized by an intense, penetrating look. This is commonly paired with a backward movement of their head as well. After only a gradual increase in tension associated with fear, the cry of the child is emitted in an explosive fashion.
By contrast, when infants are in pain, they usually keep their eyes tightly closed. If a baby in pain does open its eyes, it is typically only for a few moments and in that time a distant look is held. During a response to pain, infants maintain a high level of muscle tension around their eyes, and the forehead remains furrowed. The cry associated with pain usually begins at the highest intensity, commencing suddenly and immediately after the pain stimulus is recognized.
In Becker´s article on laughing in infants, he cites the American philosopher and psychologist William James who, in the late 1800s, made an almost heretical assertion that flew in the face of contemporary psychological theory. Namely, he claimed that infants did not enter the world as ℠blank slates´ as most believed. His contention — and this latest research only further bolsters his prescient insight — that infants come into this world pre-programmed with a whole suite of cognitive hardware, stood squarely against the conventional wisdom of the day which held that infants passively absorb information from their environment.
This latest research out of Spain could be the first step in helping both first-time parent as well as adults employed in the field of infant caregiving to recognize the specific emotions behind an infant´s cry. Understanding the motivating emotion can be a valuable insight for a parent or caregiver that allows them to accurately address the root of the problem and thereby quickly alleviate the distress of both baby and the caregiver.