Infant Crying and the Development of Communication
Barry M. Lester Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Medical Center, Boston, MA
Until recently, communication was thought of as consisting mainly of language, and since infants don't talk, they were considered incapable of communication. Etymologically the word infancy comes from the Latin infans, which means "speechless." Yet most parents know that the infant is not without an effective means of vocal communication. The notion of the infant as a communicative partner developed from studies of mother-infant interaction which asked how meanings are shared before language is available and from language acquisition studies in which attention was focused on the interactional context, the situation and extra-verbal communication in which language is used (cf. Bullowa, 1979). In its broadest sense, communication becomes the study of enculturation with emphasis on interpersonal processes with the development of speech and language part of the development of this larger communication system.
Communication is present from birth, if not before, as part of the infant's biological makeup. Crying is the primary mode of communication through which the young infant's needs and wants are expressed. The cry is an information transmission system that sends affective messages -- such as hunger, pain, and in some cases, need for attention -- to the caregiver. The kinds of messages and meanings that are encoded in the cry can alert parents to the kind of handling and care their infant needs ( Lester & Zeskind, 1979, 1982). An infant's early transactions with the caregiving environment are often crying related, such that crying becomes a matrix for the developing infant-parent interaction. The mutual regulation and feedback loops that are part of interpersonal communication are apparent from the earliest infant-initiated interactions. Not only is crying termi-