Interpreting a baby’s cry of pain is not a natural ability and parents must learn to tell this sound apart from other cries, new research suggests.
Before children learn to speak, crying is their only means of vocal communication, and it is up to adults to decipher whether a baby is in pain as opposed to being mildly uncomfortable.
The new study indicates that humans’ ability to interpret babies’ cries is not innate but is learned from experience.
Researchers found that parenting young babies shapes the ability to decode what their cries represent.
Nicolas Mathevon, University of Saint-Etienne in France, said: “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.
“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.”
The researchers wanted to look at how prior caregiving experience with babies shaped the ability to identify when they were in pain.
People with different amounts of experience caring for babies, ranging from people with no experience at all to current parents of young children, were included in the study.
They also included people with occasional experience of babysitting and non-parents with more extensive professional experience in caregiving.
Everyone in the study was given a short training phase in which they heard eight discomfort cries from one baby over a couple of days, after which their ability to decode the cries as discomfort or pain was put to the test.
According to the study, people with little to no experience were not able to tell the difference between cries any better than chance, while those with a small amount of experience performed slightly better.
Parents of younger babies were able to identify the crying contexts of babies even when they had never heard the cries of that child before.
The study also found that parents of older children and those with professional experience did not do well with unfamiliar cries.
First author of the study Siloe Corvin said: “Only parents of younger babies were also able to identify the crying contexts of an unknown baby they had never heard before.”
Study co-author Camille Fauchon said: “Professional paediatric caregivers are less successful at extending this ability to unknown babies.
“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.”
Researchers said the findings suggest the ability to decode the information in a baby’s cry and identify when a baby is in pain gets better with exposure and experience.
– The findings are published in the Current Biology journal.