For crying out loud

Contemplating the seemingly unintelligible cacophony of infant rage and misery

What noises get your attention?

The soft and subtle sounds that herald something satisfying?  Text message notifications?  A match being lit?  A can of drink being opened?

Or the loud, intrusive and abrasive sounds that alert us to something awful?  The piercing shriek of an ambulance siren?  Your car’s graunching complaints when you fumble a gear change?  The shrill whistle of a descending missile?  The cruel insistence of your alarm clock?

The sounds that really get our attention are those that warn us something is wrong.  An evolutionary legacy.  We must either run toward – to save others – or away – to save ourselves.

Some sounds have been with mankind since before we evolved out of the trees.  The roar of a hungry predator.  The onset of inclement weather.  The squawk of a disapproving mate.

The cries of our offspring.

For millennia, human infants have rarely been composed and inconspicuous.

Have you ever heard a baby cry?  Really cry?

How does it sound?  Pitiful?  Alarming?  Excruciating?

In the 1993 blockbuster, Jurassic Park, the terrifying roar of the tyrannosaurus was developed by blending and distorting various animal noises, including lions, a whale and a baby elephant.

If you amalgamated all the everyday sounds that upset you or make you shiver… it might just sound like a baby crying.

Meanwhile, in 1977, NASA launched two probes into space.  Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

They’re still out there, exploring interstellar space.  Each carries a 12-inch golden phonograph record with images and sounds of Earth, plus instructions for playing the record and finding our planet.  It is both a time capsule and a message to any civilization that may eventually recover either spacecraft.

For a year, the committee considered various sounds, seeking those that spoke volumes about life on Earth and best represented the natural diversity of our planet.  Volcano.  Hyena.  Thunder.  Train.  Laughter.  Crickets.  Herding sheep.

Also: the sound of a mother kissing her baby.  In response, the baby coos and gurgles.  Delightful.

Because the sound of a crying baby would send entirely the wrong message.  The cries of a baby encapsulate all the woe and anguish of the world in a single vocalisation.  It is not something I enjoy sharing with the neighbours.  It is certainly not something I think we should share with intelligent life on the other side of the universe.

Not if we want to be friends.

Crying, of course, is a curious thing in itself.  We don’t know why we cry, as a species.  As my good friend Wikipedia explains, ‘The question of the function or origin of emotional tears remains open.  Theories range from the simple, such as response to inflicted pain, to the more complex, including nonverbal communication in order to elicit altruistic behaviour from others.’

In the last few years, when liquid has leaked from my eyes in response to emotional stimulus, it seems to be more empathetic than anything else (with the exception of one incident of tremendous pain).  Witnessing crushing sorrow or effervescent joy.

Yes, I am wretchedly sentimental.

For everything else I have developed a range of alternative and appropriate responses.

I also revert sometimes to inappropriate responses, which I should probably admit to, lest Emma squawk disapprovingly at me.

An infant, on the other hand, lacks the necessary physiological and mental capability for sophisticated interaction with the world and people around them.

So, while a baby’s experience the world is just as complex as our own, they have not yet learned (a) to endure, and (b) a richer ‘vocabulary’ of ways in which to express how they feel or seek assistance.

For example, I have accumulated numerous mild aches and pains over the years.  Every day I tolerate them without distress.  Some are so familiar they barely register.

Simultaneously I maintain a catalogue of concerns and anxieties deep in my consciousness – live and archived.  Rarely do they distract or overwhelm me.

Meanwhile, once the immediate involuntary reaction to stubbing my toe has subsided, I continue as if nothing has happened.  I may curse if I spill cereal all over the floor, but then I clean up the mess without further ado.  If I am unable to park the car in the available space, I ask Emma to do it instead.

For a baby, the dial of distress has two settings: zero and eleven.  Charming serenity versus god-awful horror.  No intermediate levels.

A baby will respond similarly to each of the following:

  • Mild discomfort
  • The sound of crockery smashing nearby
  • Loneliness
  • Being chased by an enraged orangutan

Like us, their default state is ‘ok’.  Could be better, could be worse.  But with a newborn baby, the state of ‘ok’ is barely distinguishable from extreme pleasure.  At the other end of the spectrum, mild displeasure is barely distinguishable from red-mist fury or horrific suffering.

It is very easy, therefore, to interpret an infant’s experience of the world in binary terms.  Baby is happy; baby is very unhappy.  When baby is happy, everything is ok.  When baby is very unhappy, the world is going to end.

To be fair, though, without the ability to manage our feelings and emotions, I suspect we’d all be inconsolable, rolling around on the floor, kicking and screaming and wetting ourselves.

Crying is the only way infants have of communicating and expressing how they feel.  To begin with, it’s all you’ll get from them when they’re not just staring blankly over your shoulder.  They use it indiscriminately, like a near-blind, elderly lady who favours whacking you with her cane to get your attention or make her point.

Babies cry.  It is known.

When a baby cries, remedial action is required.  We must put an end to their crying by resolving their issue, though it may prove impossible to decipher what is required and therefore impossible to soothe them.  These things are also known.

What I did not know, as I researched during the pregnancy, is that a baby has more than one type of cry, and that I, as a father, would eventually be able to interpret the cries of my infant child.

“…though it may seem impossible now,” said one book, “you’ll soon be able to decode your baby’s different cries and know what she’s asking for.”


Reading about ‘hungry’ cries, ‘pain’ cries, ‘bored’ cries, ‘overtired or uncomfortable’ cries and ‘sick’ cries, I grew increasingly concerned that I would not be able to recognise them.  Experience has taught me I am not good at translation.  The spoken languages of other nationalities?  The body language of the opposite sex?  All too often a mystery to me.  What if I could not differentiate between all these supposedly different cries?

The sound of a crying baby is the sound of a failing parent, or at least that’s how it can feel.

We enter parenthood believing it should be within our power to prevent or resolve the crying of our children.

Sometimes we succeed.  Sometimes the need or complaint is easily identifiable.  An expected, practical requirement that can easily be satisfied by standard procedure: feeding, changing the nappy, giving them attention, making their immediate environment more comfortable, etc.

Sometimes, however, we feel utterly powerless to help them.  Their issue is more abstract than we can comprehend.  Everything we try fails.  Their anguish escalates.  It can be extremely distressing.

You know when you’re cruising along on the motorway – minding your business, making good progress – when suddenly the ‘Check Engine’ or ‘Service Vehicle’ light flashes on, without warning and for no obvious reason?  Both represent various issues that require attention.  So, you drive a little more cautiously then pull in at the next service station.  You investigate, but find no explanation.

Do you quit your journey immediately, lest you are engulfed in a fireball five miles down the road, or do you get back on the highway, praying everything will be ok?

A crying baby can present a similar conundrum.  When your baby starts crying and you cannot fathom why, do you keep trying to soothe them or leave them the hell alone?

Neither are likely to satisfy anyone involved or achieve the desired outcome.

Sometimes baby starts crying and doesn’t stop until they fall asleep.  It can take hours.  Nothing works.  It only gets worse.  Forlorn wails of distress give way to offensive shrieks of indignation and then throat-rending screams of unholy wrath.

From my own experience, you may find yourself in the following sequence while your baby goes full Exorcist:

  1. Try soothing baby through voice and touch
  2. Try feeding baby
  3. Try changing baby’s nappy
  4. Try entertaining or distracting baby
  5. Check baby’s temperature and adjust clothing as seems appropriate
  6. Inspect baby all over for any signs of a physical problem
  7. Try rocking baby in a darkened room
  8. Contemplate giving them Calpol, primarily for its sedative properties
  9. Take baby for a ride in the car or pushchair
  10. Start to worry about a serious medical problem
  11. Repeat all the above
  12. Start to feel that baby is deliberately punishing you
  13. Give up trying to help baby feel better
  14. Start begging or commanding baby to stop
  15. Try rocking yourself in a darkened room
  16. Contemplate drinking alcohol, primarily for its sedative properties
  17. Start to worry about a serious parenting problem
  18. Sit with baby, staring into space, waiting for the nightmare to end

You may encounter the term ‘colic’.  Colic (word origin: disorder relating to the colon) is generally used to refer to various conditions involving internal blockages (typically gastrointestinal or excretory) and any excruciating pain that goes with them.

But then there’s infantile colic as well.  The association with the former definition is unfortunate, because the term ‘infantile colic’ was introduced to refer to an assumed disorder in otherwise healthy babies, providing an explanation for their excessive crying.

The diversity of theories regarding the causes of infantile colic can be neatly summarised as follows:

Nobody knows what infantile colic actually is and what causes the excessive crying.

So, chances are there’s a perfectly reasonable reason why your baby will cry so much and cry so often, but you’ll never find out what it is and you’ll never be able to remedy it.

Faced with the prospect of endlessly screaming babies, the ability to understand them seems game-changing.  Something to master at all costs.

And how quickly did I learn to tell one cry from another?

I did not.

Not for Alex, not for Adam.  Nope.  Not.  Never.  Despite the assurances of the literature, I never developed the ability to decode the cries of my children.  Not all crying sounds the same, true, but which means what?  That I cannot help you with.  From an intellectual perspective, crying babies all sound the same to me.

Of course, I was usually too busy trying to end their misery to appreciate subtle variations in their shrieking.

Neither Alex nor Adam were what we might call a ‘cry-y’ baby, but each of them had their moments.  Both cried more than I would have liked.  In the morning.  In the evening.  At bath time.  At bed time.  During feeding.  During changing.  In the car.  In the pushchair.  In the middle of the night.  In the middle of the supermarket.  I’ve kept trying.  I’ve given up.  I’ve been sympathetic.  I’ve been indifferent.  I’ve been kindly.  I’ve been cross.

In fact, my emotional responses to a crying baby – and how they have varied from one episode to the next – have proven to me that infants must respond to different stressors with distinctly different cries, even though I am unable to ‘hear’ it.

I have heard my babies cry and been overwhelmed by sympathy and a desperate desire to comfort them.  It is a heart-breaking and irresistible song that promises intense emotional satisfaction in the fulfilment of my parental role.

When affected in this way, I will continue to try and comfort my child even after I have given up trying to resolve whatever has caused their grief.

I have heard my babies cry and been overwhelmed by a desperate urge to shut them up or get away.  It is an excruciating and maddening noise that seems to trigger my fight or flight instinct for some appalling reason.

When affected in this way, I quickly lose patience and have to walk away or hand over to Emma.

I have also heard my babies cry and felt nothing at all.

When affected in this way, my focus is narrowed to practical considerations only.  Objective and dispassionate, I am able to address the physiological needs of my child, but am unable to provide for any psychological or emotional requirement.

For years I was confused and concerned by what appeared to be total inconsistency in my behaviour as a father in this context.

Recently I have begun to wonder whether the variation in my emotions might have been caused by the variation in their crying.  Yes, perhaps I am just a selfish and insensitive moron (for the most part) but perhaps, buried deep in our DNA, we are subject to impulses that served our animal ancestors well but benefit the modern parent not at all. 

Perhaps, while twenty-first century me is tone-deaf to it, infant distress resonates more meaningfully with my primeval self, who can more easily recognise specific cries and tries to compel me into the associated primeval behaviour.

Interestingly, one source of parenting advice claims there are three main types of cry for babies: the ‘pain’ cry, the ‘anger’ cry and the ‘basic’ cry.  How these might correlate with my responses – caring, anger and indifference – I can only speculate…

Today, while Adam still occasionally reverts to communication through crying, Alex does not.  She has completed the transition to verbal communication.  Alex now cries only when in pain or when deeply upset about something, to which I respond with care and comfort, of course.  Adam is still likely to cry when tired, alarmed, vexed, thwarted or in disgrace.

To which I may respond with a little less tolerance.

Once Adam has also completed the transition to verbal communication, our house will no longer reverberate frequently with the unintelligible cacophony of infant rage and misery.

That’s a good thing.

Of course, it will now reverberate infrequently with intelligible cacophony instead.

Is that better or worse?

You’ll have to ask the neighbours.

1 Comment

  1. I think I have the same emotional responses to a baby crying as you! However, as an older member of the female kind I can spot a “tired” cry instantly! From a baby and an adult….usually a male one!

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