Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Why Do Babies Cry?

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Why Do Babies Cry?

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the baffling phenomenon of extensive crying in infants for unknown reasons, frequently referred to as "colic." Traditional explanations based on gastrointestinal, allergenic, and psychosocial factors are discussed, and evidence supporting a stress-release theory of infant crying is presented. The various sources of stress during infancy are reviewed, and appropriate caregiving responses to crying are discussed. An important distinction is made between the two major functions of crying: communication of immediate needs, and the release of tensions resulting from past trauma. Inappropriate caregiving responses to crying are also described, as well as the possible consequences of repressed crying.


A baby's crying can invoke powerful feelings in caretakers. In a survey in the United States of new mothers who were asked to describe their feelings when they were unable to quiet their crying babies, respondents mentioned feeling exasperated, underconfident, afraid, anxious, unloving, resentful, and confused. Some even felt extreme hostility towards their infants (Jones, 1983). Similar results were found in a survey of mothers in England and Australia. In this study, eighty percent of mothers whose babies cried extensively mentioned feeling depressed, and 50% of them felt a strong urge to hit their babies (Kitzinger, 1989).

Not surprisingly, infant crying has been linked to child abuse (Murray, 1979; Frodi, 1985). In a survey of battered infants, 80% of the parents reported that excessive crying by their child triggered the abuse (Weston, 1968). It is therefore vitally important to help parents understand and cope with their baby's crying.

Babies often cry for reasons that appear unrelated to any apparent cause or immediate need. It has been observed that about one third of the instances of crying in newborn infants are of undetermined cause (Aldrich et al., 1945), and that young babies cry on the average of 1.5 to 2 hours per day (Brazelton, 1962). Crying duration typically peaks when the infant is six to eight weeks of age, and then gradually declines. This pattern, so characteristic of infants in Western cultures, has been found in the !Kung infants of Africa as well, implying that this phenomenon is not specific to industrialized societies (Barr et al., 1987a). However, the overall amount of infant crying in primitive cultures is less (Kitzinger, 1989).

Conflicting opinions about crying abound in parenting manuals. Most of the advice, based on the assumption that all crying in infants is undesirable, asserts that the appropriate caretaking response is to quiet or "soothe" the baby. In one book aimed at helping families cope with crying, a successful intervention was considered to be one that stopped the crying (Kirkland, 1985). Not once was it suggested that crying might serve an important physiological or emotional function.

The assumption that all crying should be stopped has been seriously questioned in the author's book, The Aware Baby (Solter, 1984). The present article discusses traditional explanations for crying and then presents evidence for a stress-release theory of crying.


There are numerous traditional explanations for seemingly inconsolable crying with no discernible medical cause. Three of the most common theories offer explanations based on gastrointestinal, allergenic, or psychosocial factors.

Perhaps the most common of these explanations is the gastrointestinal theory, which states that infants cry because they have abdominal pain (Illingworth, 1954). The term "colic," originally referring to abdominal pain, has become essentially synonymous with crying behavior. A "colicky" baby is one who fusses and cries a lot. Thus, parents are led to believe that whenever their baby cries for no apparent reason, he or she must be suffering from abdominal pain.

A possible evolutionary explanation for colic has recently been proposed. …

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