In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crying

  • Introduction
  • Scholarly Volumes
  • Issues of Theory and Measurement
  • Biological Influences on Crying
  • Diagnostic and Clinical Issues
  • Recognition of Individual Infants and the Reasons for Crying
  • Caregiving Responses to Infant Cries
  • Perceiving Distress and Responding with Empathy
  • Development of Crying

Childhood Studies Crying
James Green, Gwen Gustafson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0171


Crying is a universal and salient behavior of human infants, present from birth, potentially diagnostic, and an important means of communication throughout the first year and beyond. This behavior has attracted significant attention in the literatures of psychology and medicine. In the psychological literature, much of the work focuses on parents’ responses to crying and appears to have been driven by the paradox that crying, while aversive to adults, also brings parents near and engenders empathy. Clinical professionals now recommend that parents respond promptly to cries in the first few weeks without fear of reinforcing later crying. Agreement is now general that crying is not a fixed, innate signal that communicates specific needs; rather, it is a graded signal that varies with the infant’s level of distress. There remains, however, a dearth of studies addressing the development of crying over time; it is likely that theoretical advances have been limited by a general failure to address the structural and functional characteristics of crying as infants develop new capabilities. A few studies have examined how early crying and fussing might share similarities with later cooing and babbling, thus linking early crying to at least one aspect of later development, namely language. Likewise a few studies have now examined the biological substrates of caregiving, not in the form of innate responses to crying but via functional MRI to assess responses in brain areas related to adult emotion and attention. In the medical literature, one focus has been on crying as a potential tool in diagnosing newborn diseases and disorders. The early promise that newborn crying might be used as a screening tool or as a supplement to other tests, however, has largely not been realized. Although newborns with various abnormalities have abnormal cries, studies to date have not found predictive statistics that are sufficient to recommend crying as a screening test. A secondary focus in the medical literature has been on problems of early persistent crying. Excessive, difficult-to-soothe crying is often said to be the most common complaint in the pediatrician’s office during the infant’s first weeks of life. It is now known that allergies are not usually the cause of infantile colic, and a more general question has arisen in this area about whether Western caregiving practices may increase crying. This selection of papers to review focuses on scholarly research addressing the empirical and theoretical issues stated above.

Scholarly Volumes

The six volumes in this section give a series of snapshots of cry research since the 1960s. They are excellent references to the major empirical and theoretical papers in the field. Wasz-Höckert, et al. 1968 summarizes several years of work by a group of researchers in Scandinavia, who focused on crying as a possible aid in the diagnosis of infants at risk. This group developed a classification scheme for acoustic analysis based on the sound spectrograph, a relatively new research instrument in the 1960s. Published twelve years later, Murry and Murry 1980, an edited volume, broadens the scope of cry research by examining crying as a communicative act that might relate to later language. At about the same time, Hirschberg and Szende 1982 reports research done in Hungary on the potential use of spectrographic analysis in the diagnosis of vocal tract disorders. The work goes beyond analysis of the main expiratory segment, usually termed a “wail,” to include coughs, breathing, and other nonvoiced sounds made by infants. The chapters in Lester and Boukydis 1985 address a wide range of topics, from the diagnostic value of cry analysis to models of why and how adults respond to crying. Note that in this volume, Wolff suggests that crying will likely not be helpful in medical diagnosis and calls for more systematic developmental investigations (see Development of Crying). Barr, et al. 2000 is an edited volume dealing explicitly with the sometimes distinct literatures on crying. By this point, the cry is generally viewed as a graded signal indicating overall distress of the infant rather than as a categorical signal representing a particular cause or condition. Finally, Barr, et al. 2001 contains discussions by clinicians focused on colic and persistent, unexplained crying. The wide range of contributors brings perspectives ranging from evolution to infant temperament, as well as from those who help parents manage excessive crying in young infants. Since 2001, no new compendium of papers focusing on crying has appeared, and research on crying seems to have experienced upswings and downturns. Some recent papers in the medical literature examine the role of the microbiome in excessive crying, and several papers in the psychology literature use fMRI to examine the responses of adult brains to the sounds of infant crying.

  • Barr, Ronald G., Brian Hopkins, and James A. Green, eds. Crying as a Sign, a Symptom & a Signal: Clinical, Emotional and Developmental Aspects of Infant and Toddler Crying. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Twelve chapters summarizing literatures on crying as a marker of pathology (sign), a communicative act (signal), and a complaint or clinical concern (symptom). Discussions of colic, toddler temper tantrums, cry types, cry recognition, crying in primates, and measurement issues. Emergent themes include crying as a graded signal and the value of research combining clinical and developmental perspectives.

  • Barr, Ronald G., Ian St. James-Roberts, and Maureen Ruth Keefe, eds. New Evidence on Unexplained Early Infant Crying: Its Origins, Nature, and Management. Papers presented at a pediatric conference in January 2000. Skillman, NJ: Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute, 2001.

    This edited volume on unexplained crying in early infancy emerged from a conference of more than two dozen researchers and clinicians. The chapters address issues of definition and measurement; explanations and possible implications for clinical management; developmental course, outcomes, and consequences; and possible impacts on the caregiver-infant system.

  • Hirschberg, Julius, and Tamás Szende. Pathological Cry, Stridor, and Cough in Infants: A Clinical-Acoustic Study. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1982.

    Monograph reporting on 180 hospitalized infants and children up to four years of age. Categorizes pathologies of crying, breathing, and coughing. Presents spectrographic analysis and suggests that spectrographic analysis is a useful tool for otolaryngologists and other clinicians in the diagnosis of vocal tract disorders. Includes historical overview of cry studies and a phonographic record.

  • Lester, Barry M., and C. F. Zachariah Boukydis, eds. Infant Crying: Theoretical and Research Perspectives. New York: Plenum, 1985.

    Many of the seventeen chapters explore the potential diagnostic value of cry analysis; others review physiological processes underlying cry production. Other chapters describe crying in nonhuman species and explore models of adult responses to infant crying. Epilogue by Wolff evinces skepticism of the diagnostic value of cry analysis and calls for systematic developmental investigations.

  • Murry, Thomas, and Joan Murry, eds. Infant Communication: Cry and Early Speech. Houston, TX: College-Hill, 1980.

    Thirteen chapters with an overarching focus on crying as a communicative act. Chapters address normal and abnormal cries of neonates, developmental changes in cry sounds, linkages of crying and respiration, identification of cry types, and characteristics of prespeech babbling. Includes a comprehensive bibliography of nearly 300 references on infant vocalizations.

  • Wasz-Höckert, Ole, John Lind, and Veli Vuorenkoski. The Infant Cry: A Spectrographic and Auditory Analysis. London: Spastics International Medical Publications, 1968.

    Acoustic descriptions, based on inspection of sound spectrograms, of 419 cries from 351 healthy infants (ages zero days to seven months). Also, descriptions of cries of several infants with known neurological disorders. Reports a study of caregiving experience and ability to categorize preselected cries from different situations (i.e., birth, hunger, pain, pleasure). Phonograph record is included.

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