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Why Your Head Hurts When an Infant Cries

Remember that time when you heard an infant wailing and it almost felt like nails on a chalkboard?

Well, you are not alone in your reaction!

New research suggests that the cry of an infant is a biologically evolved means of survival and serves as a cue in the caretakers brain to attend to the infant’s distress.

All to often I meet a mom in my office that is at odds with her partner around one central theme: to soothe the infant to sleep or to let the infant “cry it out”.  And despite reasoning and despite endless “how to” books on the value of “crying it out”, it seems that one parent just cannot let the baby cry without feeling terrible guilt and sometimes even panic.

One of the most vivid recollections I have of my first born infant crying was when my husband and I were driving home from the grocery store on Los Gatos Blvd and traffic suddenly came to a dead stop.  I realized that a non-moving vehicle and an awake baby meant that it was only a matter of minutes before the bomb would go off and my son would start crying.  I began to fill with panic as I looked over at my husband and whispered some desperate and descriptive profanities.

The lack of motion first set him off to wiggle his hands.  Then squirm in his seat, mumble a few sounds.  And then a slow mad cry at first that soon grew louder.  I began to sweat and my husband began to daze out behind the steering wheel.  Our options were limited. All we could do was sit and pray and try really hard not to take out our anger and desperation on each other.

That day marked for me a cognitive realization.  Sitting in the front seat with no escape and no soothing gesture for my baby made me feel stuck, trapped, panicked, angry, and hopeless all in one fail swoop.  It was overwhelming and terrible.  I was mad at my husband for not honking the horn, or better yet, not driving on the sidewalk and away from that stopped traffic to the freedom of motion and quiet.  And I also became acutely aware of the inside of my brain buzzing- almost like a needle was grinding into my inner earlobe as the baby wailed.  I wondered afterward, was what I was feeling in that moment actually neurologically engrained in my mom brain?

The answer is “Yes”!  It is.  This article from the New Your Times speaks to research conducted on infant crying and it’s psysiological origins as the basis for survival in communicating with caretaker brains.

So the next time you find yourself in the chaos of soothing your crying infant (or someone else’s for that matter!)…know that these bouts of noise are your infants first means of communicating it’s needs to you (and others!).  And follow your heart because it’s closely connected to your brain.



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