Crying is not just the sound of a fussy baby or a bothersome noise. It is a direct and effective way that the young child communicates. For preverbal children, crying is definitely language.

Crying is an important part of the infant’s earliest communication system that is used to convey various demands and needs, such as hunger or thirst, or pain from colic or teething. If they are well fed and warm, crying babies are most likely in pain, or at least uncomfortable, and it is unjust to grow suspicious of their  motives  when  they  promptly  stop  crying  on being picked up.

The infant’s cry also seems to take on a special, distinctive quality, and there are a variety of factors affecting how well parents can discriminate cries, including the experience of the listener, the age of the baby, the type of cry (e.g., hungry or tired), how typical the cry is, and the length of the crying episode. With all these variables being important, it is easy to see why there can be differences in the way parents react to crying. In fact, many new parents learn their child’s individual crying patterns very quickly and can even recognize them during the first month of life. They regularly report how they can easily tolerate the crying of other infants, but not their own.

Infant crying can also be a provocative and often unpleasant experience, probably because it is supposed to evoke caregiving behaviors from adults. In one study of 50 mother-infant pairs, the promptness with which mothers responded to their infant’s crying was studied. The results showed that the average duration of crying was reduced by about one half over the 9-month length of the experiment, but that the number of crying instances remained about the same. So children cried for less time each time they cried, but continued to cry the same number of times. Most interesting is that delay of maternal responses reduced the number of crying bouts, contrary to the results of earlier experiments.

The pattern of cries and their significance become terribly important for the development of reciprocity between the parent and the child. First, the crying establishes a social link. More important, however, is that the very act of crying makes the infant more aware of the physical apparatus necessary to make sounds. When infants are about to talk, their spurts of crying take on the same duration as first words, so they develop a rhythm of communication that up to now has been much more unsystematic.

Ignoring prolonged crying entails the risk for missing a potentially important warning. A touch of hoarseness in the crying may mark the beginning of a croup attack with its characteristic barking cough. Some researchers suggest that the crying of babies who are ill may be unique among other cries to signal that special attention might be needed. For example, Zeskind and Lester found that certain high-risk children have distinctive features about their crying, and other researchers found that cries of Down syndrome children are more unpleasant than those of normal children.

Persistent crying has also been a focus of research. Persistent crying has been tied to family disruptions and child abuse. If you have ever had to face a baby who just will not quit (and you had no one to relieve you), you would understand how frustrating this situation can be.

Ignoring crying can have other consequences as well, both positive and negative. If the child is continuously  ignored,  he  or  she  will  learn  not  to  place trust in others in an “unsafe” world. If the crying is responded to without any crimination, the child could end up not learning how to deal with frustration.


  1. Collins, , Laverty, A., Roberts, S., Kyle, R., Smith, S., & Eaton Evans, J. (2004). Eating behavior and food choices in children with Down’s syndrome, autistic spectrum disorder or cri du chat syndrome and comparison groups of siblings: Diet and preventive dentistry. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 8, 331–350.
  2. Stein, , Keefer, C., & Kessler, D. (2004). Selective affective response to a parent in a 6 month old infant. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 25, 8–14.
  3. Zeskind, P. , & Lester, B. M. (1978). Acoustic features and auditory perceptions of the cries of newborns with prenatal and perinatal  complications.  Child  Development,  49, 580–589.