If you think your baby has you wrapped around their little finger, you’d be right! A baby’s cries can spark powerful, physical reactions in their mother – and your baby does it without even realising it.
Babies are not only cute to look at and lovely to snuggle, they are adorable, evolved little geniuses who speak the very language that heightens their mothers’ senses and gets her heart racing.
Researchers tell us that babies’ heart-wrenching screams activate the amygdala – the part of the brain that controls the fight-or-flight fear response in humans. “Screams occupy their own little patch of the soundscape that doesn’t seem to be used for other things,” says David Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University and director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt told NPR.
He suggested screams (or distressed cries) have evolved to press that brainy button in humans – the survival-focused amygdala – sparking racing hearts, escalating blood pressure, panic and general discomfort. Those cries get us moving, from our very (brainy) cores, so don’t think it’s just you that’s freaking out a bit. It’s an inbuilt response.
Well done amygdala!
Babies are not only switching on that flight or fight response via your brain, they’re tapping into some useful hormonal responses too.
A crying baby will stimulate the production of feel-good or “love” hormone oxytocin in its mother. A recent study found that oxytocin, which abounds in a mum post-childbirth and during breastfeeding, may not just have us feeling loved-up about our little one, it may alter the way we hear and respond to sounds, too.
Researchers found that increased oxytocin changed the way auditory signals are processed in the brains of mice. It amplified – or turned up – the cries of baby mice in their hormone boosted mothers. “We found that oxytocin turns up the volume of social information processed in the brain,” Robert Froemke, who led the study at New York University, told The Guardian.
Experts think that this could be happening in human mothers of crying babies too. Baby cries, hormone is released, hormone magically amplifies cries in mum’s brain (making us super-focused on fulfilling their needs), mum cares for baby.
Ta-dah! Take a bow, oxytocin.
Discomfort and response
In a study of a group of mothers, to determine how they responded to video featuring a series of babies crying, researchers found out that some mothers respond with a mum-led response, while others respond with a baby-led approach, seeking to settle the baby’s needs first.
The response to the filmed babies’ cries depended on the amount of physical stress or symptoms the mum felt when she heard the cries.
“Mothers whose physical stress was poorly controlled (measured, for example, by skin conductance — how much sweat was on their skin in response to the stress — and rapid heart rate) in response to the videos were more likely to focus on themselves and responded more negatively to the videos (they perceived crying as a nuisance or manipulation),” Science Daily reported.
So that may mean mums who were less able to control the physical symptoms babies crying sparked in themselves, may find it harder to deal with their own emotional response too.
There are also some interesting theories suggesting differences between how women and men process babies cries.
A (small) Italian study found that women in particular have evolved to be more sensitive to a baby’s cries and another (again, small) study in 2013 also flagged women as more responsive and affected when an infant cries.
“After asking men and women to let their minds wander, researchers played a recording of white noise interspersed with the sounds of an infant crying. Brain scans showed that the men’s brains remained in the resting state. Meanwhile, brain activity in the women abruptly switched to an attentive mode upon hearing the infant cries,” the research found.
While it seems there may be a difference between how men and women’s brains respond to a baby’s cry generally, another (small) study found that all humans are affected by an infant’s distress when heard amidst a bunch of other sounds.
Our brains respond in a particular way, within milliseconds, often before even fully processing the sound. “This [response] was primarily in two regions of the brain,” said Katie Young of the University of Oxford. “One is the middle temporal gyrus, an area previously implicated in emotional processing and speech; the other area is the orbitofrontal cortex, an area well-known for its role in reward and emotion processing.”
Researchers pointed to the physical, often involuntary reaction, many people have to a crying infant on a plane as evidence of this. “When you hear a baby on a plane, you’re immediately alert, even if you don’t want to hear it. It’s a sound that’s very difficult to ignore,” University of Oxford Christine Parsons said.
So interesting, right?! What physical responses do you have when your baby cries?