Identifying a baby’s cry of pain is not an innate ability, study suggests

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New research suggests that interpreting a baby’s pain is not a natural ability and that parents should learn to tell this voice apart from other cries.

Before babies learn to speak, crying is their only means of assertive communication, and it’s up to adults to see if the baby is in pain rather than mildly uncomfortable.

The new study indicates that humans’ ability to interpret babies’ cries is not innate, but learned from experience.

Researchers found that parenting of young children shapes their ability to decode the representations of crying.

We found that the ability to detect pain in crying – that is, to identify pain only from an uncomfortable cry – is controlled by the experience of caring for babies.

Nicolas Mathevon, University of Saint-Etienne

Nicolas Mathevon, from the University of Saint-tienne in France, said: “We found that the ability to detect pain in crying – that is, the ability to identify pain only from an uncomfortable cry – is modified by the experience of caring for babies.

“Current parents of young children can identify a child’s cries of pain even if they have never heard this child before, whereas inexperienced individuals are usually unable to do so.”

The researchers wanted to see how prior care experience with children shaped their ability to recognize when they were in pain.

The study included people with varying experiences in caring for children, from people with no experience to current parents of young children.

They also included people with occasional experience caring for children and non-parents with more extensive professional experience in caring.

Everyone in the study was given a short training phase in which they listened to eight discomfort cries from a child over a few days, after which their ability to decode the crying as discomfort or pain was tested.

According to the study, people with little or no experience were able to tell the difference between crying better by chance, while those with less experience performed slightly better.

The researchers said their findings suggest that a baby’s ability to decode information in crying improves with exposure and experience (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Parents of young children were able to recognize the context of the babies crying even when they had never heard of that child crying before.

The study also found that parents of older children and those with professional experience did not do well with unfamiliar crying.

Silo Corvin, the study’s first author, said: “Only parents of young children were also able to identify references to an unknown baby crying that they had never heard before.”

Study co-author Camille Fauchon said: “Professional pediatric caregivers are less successful in extending this ability to unborn children.

“This was surprising at first, but it is consistent with the idea that experienced listeners may develop a resistance that reduces their sensitivity to acoustic signals of pain.”

Researchers said the findings suggest the ability to decode information in a baby’s cry and identify when a baby is in pain improves with exposure and experience.

The findings have been published in the journal Current Biology.

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