Babies imitate mothers’ intonation (?)

I read this article on the BBC Health website which was titled, “German researchers say babies begin to pick up the nuances of their parents’ accents while still in the womb.” In the article, there is a link to an audio clip which has two babies crying, one French and one German. ‘The researchers studied the cries of 60 healthy babies [from 3-5 days of age] born to families speaking French and German. The French newborns cried with a rising “accent” while the German babies’ cries had a falling inflection.’

That’s possible. It’s also possible that the babies were manifesting different needs, and crying in different ways. I remember watching something on Oprah a few years ago, in which a woman said that in her studies, babies from all over the globe made the same sounds for the same needs — all hungry babies would make one particular kind of cry, while all babies who are wet or uncomfortable in some way would make another, and those who just wanted to be held and comforted might make another. They played sounds of babies crying through the speaker system of the show, and the woman would say, “Oh, that baby is _____.”

It seems that these two things would be mutually exclusive. However, there is something in the back of my mind that says the woman was focusing on the baby’s “consonant” sounds — that hungry babies would start their cry with a “nnnnn” sound — more than the “intonation.”

One of my friends admitted that when her oldest child was a baby, she had no clue why he was crying, and would just “start at the top and go down” the list of possible reasons; but when her second came, she could hear differences in his cries that let her say with some certainty, “That’s a hunger cry”; or “he sounds like he needs to burp.” It’s been a few years since my children were babies, but I think I was pretty good at this. I know I’m good now at telling what is going on by slight audible clues! Sometimes I don’t know if it’s just the way they’re crying, or if I happened to hear the thump that led up to them crying which gave me a clue; but more often than not, I can tell which part of the body my child hurt by the way he cries.

Whether the inflection theory is correct, or the “all babies cry the same for the same needs” theory is correct, one thing I am certain of: babies are born to communicate, and it behooves us (especially mothers, but all care-givers) to treat infants as thinking, feeling individuals.

2 Responses

  1. Most certainly babies communicate through cries. Mother’s can and do pick up what their babies cries mean. However, I do believe that some babies defy this. I’ve always been able to understand babies cries, until my fourth child was born. I NEVER understood what her cries meant. It was very difficult. It wasn’t until she was about two and a half that we truly began communicating with each other. However we may think babies are shaped (and I do believe these theories have merit), there will always be babies that do not follow the rules.

  2. I have been maternal since I was young, and could always tell what the cries of babies meant. From starting to babysit at 12 to my first child (he’s now 14 months I’m now 27) I’ve always been able to tell the different cries. I go to the store and hear a baby crying and can tell my husband “that ones hungry” or “that one wants to be picked up”. That being said I’ve noticed that I can also tell the difference between an ‘english’ baby and a ‘spanish’ one by their cry before I see them (usually in a store or day care center) but those are the only two languages I’ve had repeat experiance with. I haven’t come across a baby that I couldn’t identify, but I agree with birthathomemom that certainly some babies do defy this.

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