Mothers across cultures and countries respond within five seconds to their crying babies by picking them up and talking to them, according to new research from the National Institutes of Health. The research included behavioral analysis of more than 600 mothers from 11 countries, along with brain scan data from a smaller sample of mothers. The results indicate that mothers, no matter where they are from, are biologically hardwired to snap into action at the sound of their kids in distress.
And they suggest that the best way to soothe a fussy baby is to both hold and coo. Take note!
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Parenting in Other Countries
“The cry seems to have developed as the first form of preverbal communication and serves infants’ agency. Reciprocally, caregivers respond to infant cry in many ways,” study coauthor Marc Bornstein of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) told Fatherly. “We wanted to ascertain what the most popular kinds of responses were.”
Across human and animal studies, infant cries communicate needs with caregivers through their expressions and sounds. A review of the literature supports the theory that the neural structures in a baby’s forebrain, or the primitive part thought to be dispensable, uses crying provoke responses from parents. Additional research supports this, showing that infant cries activate the nervous systems of both the babies and their caregivers. But it’s not a perfect system. There’s evidence that babies crying in the postpartum period can trigger depression, increase a mother’s fear of harming her baby and, in rare cases drive a parent to shake or otherwise harm the child.
Bornstein and his team wanted to understand why infant cries evoke the responses that they do, so they analyzed video footage of 684 new mothers and their 5-month-old infants in their homes in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, and the United States. They watched an hour of footage and coded mothers’ responses in one of five categories—showing affection, showing distraction, nurturing (feeding or diapering), picking up or holding, and talking to babies. Despite being from different parts of the world, mothers in all 11 countries “behaved with noteworthy consistency,” by picking up crying babies and talking to them.
“The consistency of the mothers’ responses across cultures in terms of preference and rapidity—within five seconds of the onset of infant cry—was a bit surprising,” Bornstein says. Because the findings were so stark, “We hypothesized that certain neural mechanisms might be at play.”
So Bornstein and colleagues conducted a second experiment with fMRI. Forty three new U.S. mothers and 44 experienced Chinese mothers listened to their own infants cry, alongside 12 Italian non-mothers who served as a control, and then compared these responses to other sounds. Results revealed that both new and experienced mothers experienced activation in brain regions consistent with the first experiment—the supplementary motor area (which is motivates movement and speech), the inferior frontal regions (which help with the production of speech), and the superior temporal regions (which are associated with sound processing). In other words, a mother’s brain begins plans to speak, coo, and comfort the moment she hears her baby crying.
While there are limitations (the FMRi sample is quite small), the results are compelling. One glaring omission, however, is how fathers respond to baby cries. Past studies suggest that moms and dads have some similarities and differences in their neurobiological responses to their babies, so testing how fathers react in a similar study could be an interesting next step.
For Bornstein, the practical takeaways from this study are not necessarily about mothers’ responses, but about the infants themselves. Namely, the study suggests that we’re biologically wired to both pick up crying babies and talk to them—and if that’s how we’re wired, it’s probably the best way to soothe a fussy baby. That’s information that frazzled dads can use, too.
“This answers one of the most popular ‘How do I’ questions of new parents,” he says.