Why Babies Scream

The sonic blast of a wailing infant gives the otherwise helpless creature the ability to make their needs known.

Crying baby

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The first act that every healthy baby commits upon emerging from the womb is a cry — an expertly coordinated spasm of the diaphragm, with an exquisitely timed closure of the vocal cords across the windpipe (so that they vibrate and produce sound) and a synchronized opening of the mouth and lowering of the tongue:


That newborns can, without a single rehearsal, perform this act of complex physical coordination upon first exposure to the air (before birth, all humans are aquatic animals) suggests that the infant cry is pure instinct, like the reflex kick of your foot when the doctor taps your knee with a hammer. And it has a clear, biological survival purpose: It ejects from the windpipe any mucous or amniotic fluid on which the baby could choke. But it also has a vital function as communication. It notifies everyone within earshot that the screamer is alive.

In the first days and weeks of life, the baby’s cry grows more robust as the abdominal muscles and diaphragm strengthen with use, and as the baby gains greater control of its tongue and lips, instinctively shaping the resonance chambers of throat, mouth, and lips to boost the signal to a window-rattling volume (people who study to be opera singers have to relearn how to do what a baby does naturally). This sonic blast gives the otherwise helpless creature the ability to summon, from a great distance, its mother.

From This is the Voice by John Colapinto. Copyright © 2021 by John Colapinto.

It’s been called a “biological siren,” and like any siren, it was engineered (by nature) to be intensely annoying. A typical baby’s cry has a fundamental frequency (or pitch) around 500 cycles per second (five times that of an adult male voice), with overtones (that is, the additional audible pitches that are part of every complex vocal sound) around 1,400 and 5,700 cycles per second — very high frequencies that overload the human auditory cortex. Like nails scraping a blackboard, or the rattle of a jackhammer, the cry causes great psychological distress in those who hear it, so they must spring into action and tend to the baby’s needs, if only to alleviate the assault to their own nervous system. Thus, the paradox in the baby’s cry, as described by Debra Zeifman, a psychologist at Vassar College who specializes in mother-infant bonding: “part of [the cry’s] power to activate caregiving lies in its noxiousness, and … this very noxiousness can also evoke abusive or avoidant responses by caregivers.”

In the late 1950s, psychiatrist Peter Ostwald, of the University of California School of Medicine, became fascinated by the baby’s cry and its uncanny similarity to the vocal acoustics of severely ill psychiatric patients. In a 1961 paper in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Ostwald isolated the universal “stress tone” in patients suffering from acute depression, schizophrenia, and psychoneurotic hypochondria. The voices of all these patients showed anomalies in the higher overtones centered around 500 cycles per second — the average pitch of the baby’s cry. Ostwald saw this as acoustic confirmation of Freud’s theory that emotional disorders reflect a psychic wound from earliest childhood that regresses the adult sufferer to a state of infantile need and complaint that can actually be heard in the pitch and timbre of the sufferer’s voice.

The connection between the baby’s cry and the sound of clinical neurosis would, less than ten years after Ostwald’s study, inform a treatment pioneered by a California-based psychotherapist named Arthur Janov. During a group therapy session at Janov’s San Francisco clinic in 1967, an overwrought 22-year-old male patient fell writhing to the floor and began to emit what Janov later described as “an ­eerie scream welling up from the depths” — a sound that “one might hear from a person about to be murdered.” The screaming fit, reportedly, alleviated the patient’s neurosis. Janov began encouraging his other patients to scream. They, too, felt better afterward. Janov called the noise the “Primal Scream” and said that it was a more effective treatment for neurosis than psychotherapy or drugs. The scream, he said, regresses patients to a period before certain emotional injuries were inflicted, injuries that create a permanent “muscle tension” throughout the body.

This stored-up “psychic pain,” Janov said, leads to a “clamping” of the respiratory and vocal muscles that is heard in the “squeezed” voice of the neurotic. Janov claimed that the violent muscular spasms involved in screaming unlock this muscle tension and relieve the psychic pain, permanently.

While anxiety and other emotional disorders do affect the voice — tensing the respiratory muscles, which dampens volume; tightening laryngeal muscles and causing the voice to tremble; freezing muscles of the face and tongue, blurring articulation — there’s no evidence that severe neurosis can be permanently alleviated by screaming, primal or otherwise.

Today, any reported effectiveness in Janov’s screaming treatment is understood to be a placebo effect or short-term emotional catharsis. Nevertheless, Janov’s book The Primal Scream, published in 1970, sold millions and attracted celebrity adherents, including the actor James Earl Jones and Apple founder Steve Jobs. But the most famous proselytizer for Primal Scream Therapy was John Lennon. The singer’s openness to trying new therapies, religions, and drugs was well known, as was his psychic turmoil: Abandoned by both parents at age four and raised by an aunt, he was only just growing close to his mother, in his teens, when she was killed by a student driver; to this trauma was added, shortly before he read The Primal Scream, his split from the Beatles, divorce from his first wife, and a descent into heroin addiction.

Janov personally oversaw Lennon’s treatment, which lasted five months. Shortly afterward, Lennon released his first post-Beatles LP, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which features songs inspired by Primal Scream, including the harrowing “Mother,” where Lennon repeatedly shrieks “Mommy come hoooooooome,” his voice growing more desperate, more atonal and ragged, with each iteration of home. The effect is genuinely spooky: His final long-drawn cry, on the fade out, could be a newborn wailing in vain for its mother. In interviews, Lennon praised Primal Scream (“You’re so astounded by what you find out about yourself”), but a few years later he relegated the treatment, and Janov, to the heap of cast-off therapies, religions, drugs, and gurus he had embraced and abandoned since the mid-1960s.

Although automatic, the newborn’s “biological siren” also carries an echo of the child’s native tongue imprinted on the fetal nervous system during the final two months of pregnancy, when the fetus could hear sounds outside the womb. When ­researchers compared the cries of newborns from France and from Germany, they discovered that the French two-day-olds wailed on a rising pitch contour, mirroring the melodic pattern of spoken French; German newborns cry on a downward arc typical of that language’s prosody. The study’s authors saw this astonishingly early mimicry of the maternal voice as a crucial adaptation to attract the mother’s attention and “foster bonding.”

But forming actual words, in any language, is anatomically impossible for all newborns and remains so for many months. This is owing to the extraordinary fact that we emerge from the womb with a larynx in the same high throat position as that of adult chimpanzees — which is to say that it is not located around the middle of the neck, as in adult humans. Instead, the newborn’s larynx is crowded up into the back of the mouth, close to the opening of the velum. This aids breastfeeding by creating an uninterrupted airway from nose to lungs (so newborns can suck at mom’s breast without having to stop and “come up for air” as they feed — the milk flowing around the sides of the raised larynx and into the stomach).

But this high larynx position also severely restricts the range of vowels that any newborn can utter. And the ability to produce clear, distinctly different vowels, one from another (for instance, ee, ahh, ooo), is crucial for articulate speech; it’s how you make, for instance, the separate words had, heed, head, hide, hid, hood, who’d, and HUD from the same set of consonants. By altering slightly the curve and position of the tongue in the oral cavity, you change the relative size and shape of the different sections of your vocal tract, which runs from your vocal cords vertically up your throat and, after a 90-degree bend, into the horizontal section of your mouth. Though they form a continuous tube, the vocal tract’s throat and mouth sections act as two independent resonance chambers — and you boost certain vowel-defining ­overtones in the vocal spectrum depending on how you shape those resonance chambers with your tongue. The lips get into the act when you make the ooo and oh vowels, rounding and extending the lips, which lengthens the entire vocal tract and lowers the pitch of all the overtones in the voice spectrum.

The tiniest changes to the size or shape of the vocal tract’s resonators has a huge effect on the different sounds our brains perceive, which is how English speakers, through subtle adjustments to the tongue and lips, produce the 20-odd vowels of English, or Swedish speakers make the 40 distinct vowels of their language. Even the slight pulling in of the lips against the teeth when we smile shortens the vocal tract enough to raise the signal’s entire overtone spectrum, “brightening” the sound so that we can tell, over the phone, that the person speaking to us is in a good mood (you hear a smile). You also detect a sulky mood in the sound of a pout, which extends the lips, lowering the overtone spectrum. (Which is why photographers, when they want you to assume the expression of a happy person, shout: “Say cheese!” and not “Say choose!”)

Now, imagine that you didn’t have a throat resonator because (like a baby or a chimp) your larynx is pushed up into the back of your mouth. You’d be limited to the vowels that can be made only with the mouth resonator — a sound linguists call the schwa. Kind of a short e sound, it’s actually the most common speech sound in all languages, as well as being the sound you make when pausing for thought (“uhhh”). Call it the sound of the cerebral cortex in neutral gear. It’s useful in its place (at the end of words like the), but not so good if it were the only vowel sound we could make.

And it’s why a newborn is physically incapable of producing any human language. Only as the baby transitions from liquid to solid food does the larynx descend down the throat, literally inching down the neck, day by day. As it does so, the larynx pulls the root of the tongue down with it (the back of our tongue is attached to the larynx by a system of ligaments). This elongation of the tongue down our throat is crucial to speech, because it is the tongue’s vertical section that we manipulate (pushing it forward and backward) to produce the correct throat overtones for clear, well-articulated vowels.

As the baby’s larynx descends down the throat in the first months of life, she also gains considerable motor control of her articulators and starts to make an array of speech-like lip-pops for p and b, percussive tongue hits for d and t, fricatives and sibilants (like s and sh, which break the sound wave up into a hissing turbulence by pushing it through a narrow gap between tongue and teeth), as well as nasals, like m and n, by opening the velum and sending the soundwave through the nose. But not until she is 6 to 8 years old will her larynx descend to the point where she can make vowels as finely sculpted as an adult’s, though even by her first birthday her larynx will have descended enough so that adults can infer what vowel sounds she’s trying to make — a good thing, since it is at precisely this moment in infancy, at one year old, that she will put the various voice sounds together to utter her first word.

From This Is the Voice by John Colapinto. Copyright © 2021 by John Colapinto. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This article is featured in the September/October 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. A fascinating look at infant communication progression from birth to age one, and the crucial roles the larynx plays along with solid food. The changes are fast, drastic and necessary for the baby to communicate beyond crying/screaming; enabling the start of talking.

    Babies also have an instinctual preference for the peaceful serenity of quiet and calm that doesn’t last long into life, unfortunately. Maybe it does in nations that aren’t under continual bombastic stress and drama from all angles, all the time.

    It’s always good to have a pacifier handy when out with a baby. They find it soothing and are less likely to cry.


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