When a newborn infant screws up her face and lets loose with a full-throated wail, it's one of the most nerve-jangling sounds we can hear. Even worse is the eerie silence that can come between screams. When the howls go on and on, we instinctively want to do something to help. We want to make the crying stop.
But, what do we do after we've diapered, fed, swaddled, cuddled, rocked, sung, de-swaddled, re-diapered, bounced, swung and walked the floor? What do we do if we've emptied our entire bag of infant-calming tricks and nothing works?
Here's what we do. We hang in there. We do our best to stay calm. We keep trying.
Certainly, there are times when a pediatrician should be called for advice or a check-up to make sure nothing is physically wrong. But infants cry -- a lot -- for good reason, or sometimes for no apparent reason. Science tells us that even when we can't figure out what's wrong, our soft words and comforting touch still teach the infant this optimistic life lesson: When you're in distress, mom or dad or someone who loves you is going to stick by you, even when they don't have a clue what's troubling you.
The Fourth Trimester
When I say "infant" or "newborn," I mean a baby who is roughly three months old or younger. Infants that young are simply not neurologically or emotionally prepared to have their cries ignored. Later, they'll begin to figure out all the wonderful ways in which tears and sobs can manipulate their parents. But not yet.
Multiple branches of science, including evolutionary anthropology, neurology, biology and developmental psychology, tell us that the first three months of life is a crucial bridge from the comfortable world of the uterus to life in the world we all know. Think of it as the fourth trimester, a period of intense development in which infants have more in common with the fetuses they were than with the human babies they are becoming.
That's because human infants are unique in the animal world. They come to us with only 25 percent of their brains developed, the least neurologically prepared primate on earth. The brains of human newborns come equipped with more than enough neurons, but they don't yet have the brain wiring that allows for communication among the cells. Those communication networks begin to develop from day one with each sound, taste, blurry sight and comforting touch that comes their way.
Infants are helpless for sure, but they're also amazingly competent. At birth, they have only one communication tool at their disposal: their cry. It signals hunger, discomfort, fear, or lonelines -- all needs that were effortlessly met in the womb. Their very survival during the fourth trimester depends on their cry.
Something to Cry About
Think for a minute about what the world must look, sound, feel and smell like to a newborn baby. Put yourself in a neonate's place and imagine emerging from a cozy, temperature-controlled and highly personalized sac and suddenly landing in this chaotic world of ours. Everything formerly known and craved -- food, warmth, security -- has been left behind. Lights, noise, pokes and prods are alien and harsh. Exhausted from the birth rides, infants take their first breath and exhale a vigorous cry of life.
Repetition is Boring, Even when You're a Week Old
It's our job to ease them through this time of transition by responding to cries and trying to give them what they need. When the need isn't food, a diaper change, relief from being too hot or too cold or other obvious necessities, we're stymied. I don't believe that there is a magic formula for comforting every baby every time. One infant might calm down when swaddled while another hates the tight wrap. One might find comfort in quiet darkness while another quiets down to the sound of a lullaby.
One father told me that he was sure he found the perfect routine to soothe his infant son. He ran water in the shower, while cuddling the baby as he bounced on an exercise ball in the bathroom. The combination of dim light, the sound of water, the bouncing motion and the security of being in his father's arms was just the ticket. It worked on day one. It worked again on days two and three. The parents were delighted, and the father felt like a child-care genius.
Then came day four, and the shower bouncing routine no longer worked. The baby continued to be inconsolable as his father bounced away and the water ran down the drain. We've all had similar experiences. We find a certain way of holding brings peace and are sure that a football hold, for example, is the ticket; or a cradle hold; or an over the shoulder hold. We think the answer is to face the infant forward or backward or sideways or face down on our laps. It works once or twice, then stops working.
The truth is, babies are like the rest of us. Something pleases them one minute, they lose interest the next. Babies get bored, too. Silence works one day, a lullaby the next. Rocking one day, laying them down while rubbing their backs the next. It's an ongoing experiment, and your efforts to understand represent the first days of what will become a lifelong communication based on observation and love. The best you can do is pay attention to their signals day by day.
When an infant cries, he has a need. You know how to check a diaper or prepare a feeding. But loneliness is also a need for a brand-new human being who, for nine months, has never been alone. So hang in there. Let them know that you've got the parental chops to see them through distress. Let their most early experiences in life show them that, just as their biological mothers were right there with them through the three trimesters of pregnancy, someone who loves them is going to be right by their side through the crucial fourth trimester of development.
EARLIER ON HUFFPOST PARENTS
A study published in the journal Infant Behavior & Development revealed that the standard "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" has little to do with reality. When 253 college students were asked to rank photos of the same individuals as infants and young adults (without being told who was who), there was no relationship between how cute the students found the babies and how attractive they found the grown-ups.
No, really, it's true. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard the shout "Mine!" -- research shows babies can sense fairness at 15 months. During one study at the University of Washington, 47 babies observed videos of an experimenter distributing milk and crackers to two people. When one recipient received more food than the other, the babies paid more attention. That means they had expected a fair distribution. The researchers also found that babies who did notice unfairness were more likely to share their own toys.
OK, so they're not exactly psychic. But a recent study from the University of Missouri found that babies just 10 months old are starting to follow the thought processes of others. Yuyan Luo, an associate professor of developmental psychology who conducted the study, tells The Huffington Post, "Babies, like adults, when they see something for the first time -- when something is surprising -- they look for a long time. It shows [they recognize] something is inconsistent." It's called the "violation of expectation," she explained. When babies are surprised by something or notice something unexpected has happened, they tend to gaze at that thing longer. In Luo's research, babies watched actors consistently choose object A (such as a block or a cylinder) over object B. When an actor then switched to object B, the babies stared for about five to six seconds longer, meaning they recognized the change in preference.
Don't judge a book by its cover. Treat all people the same. We're all equals. These are sentiments parents strive to teach their kids from a very young age. And they should. Starting, like, immediately. Researchers at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom found that babies at three months begin showing a preference for the faces of people of their own race. But not all hope for equality is lost. The same study showed that babies who are exposed to people of all different races are less likely to develop bias at such an early age.
Researchers from Brigham Young University found that five-month-old babies can identify an upbeat song as being different from a series of sad, slow songs. In other words, they are happy. They know it. They will clap their hands. Or stare longer, as the case may be. The experimenters showed babies an emotionless face while music played. When they played a new sad song, the babies looked away. When the music pepped up, the babies stared for three to four seconds longer.
Babies have a sense of morality at six months old, say Yale researchers. During the Yale study, babies watched a puppet show in which a wooden shape with eyes tried to climb a hill over and over again. Sometimes a second puppet helped him up the hill, and other times a third puppet pushed him down. After watching the act several times, the babies were presented with both puppets. They showed a clear preference for the good characters over the bad ones by reaching to play with the good puppet.
Dr. Janet Werker of the University of British Columbia, who studies how babies perceive language, found that if a mother spoke two languages while pregnant, her infant could recognize the difference between the two. And they don't even have to be spoken out loud. Werker's research found that infants four to six months old can visually discriminate two languages when watching muted videos of someone speaking both.