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|Clinician's Digest - Page 6|
The Baby Cry Decoder
Most experts on parenting agree that babies cry for one of five reasons: they're hungry, annoyed, bored, stressed (which includes feeling pain), or sleepy. The crying will continue and usually escalate until the parent responds appropriately to the baby's distress. Like gurgling and smiling, crying is an excellent system for strengthening parent/child bonding. It gives parents a powerful incentive to figure out what's going on with their babies and quick feedback about whether they've succeeded. And, by crying, babies learn the most essential attachment lesson of all—that their fundamental needs can be met and they'll be comforted. As cries subside into contented sleep or happy gurgles, the positive feedback loop between baby and parent is reinforced, to their mutual benefit.
Successful empathic encounters engendered by crying thus are a primary building block of babies' developing neural networks. But empathic failures can have dire consequences. Some parents can't figure out what's causing the crying because of their own excessive anxiety, depression, narcissism, or autism or some other disorder that smothers empathy. As they become more frustrated, the crying crescendos, and the parent and child become locked in a negative feedback loop that, if entrenched, can result in developmental delays, emotional disorders, and even child abuse.
So when Spanish engineer Pedro Monagas couldn't figure out what his crying baby wanted, he invented WhyCry, a baby monitor that analyzes the pitch, rhythm, and volume of a baby's cries. Within 20 seconds, one of five icons appears, identifying whether the baby is hungry, annoyed, bored, sleepy, or stressed.
Is WhyCry accurate? Researchers know that babies' gestures reveal their moods. For example, babies stick their fists into their mouths when they're hungry and kick and shake their arms gently and move their heads when they're bored. When Monagas crosschecked WhyCry's readouts against about 85 babies' physical gestures, he found a 98 percent agreement. Parents who buy WhyCry—available for about $100—receive charts describing the physical gestures, so they can double-check the icons' accuracy.
But a closer look at independent research on the importance of voice in caregiver-baby interactions suggests that WhyCry may be counterproductive. Vanderbilt University psychologist Jo-Anne Bachorowski, who researches the role of vocal acoustics in emotional intelligence, finds that the parent's voice is critical in establishing an empathic bond between parent and baby. Research finds that the pitch and rhythm of a parent's voice are more powerful than even their facial expressions in eliciting responses from infants or modulating their emotions. Because the acoustical characteristics of the parent's voice are instinctual—crossculturally, parents use different voices when talking with babies than with adults—it's possible that while WhyCry may tell parents what their baby needs, it may also interfere with their instinctively empathic vocal response. When it comes to empathic communication, says Bachorowski, the melody is the real message, and WhyCry may destroy the music.
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