How a Mother’s Brain Responds to a Crying Baby

mother's brain reacting to baby crying

How does a mother’s brain respond to a crying baby?

Anyone that has been around a crying baby knows that it is nearly impossible to ignore. Everything comes to a screeching halt.

Why is that?

Humans are hardwired to respond to a baby’s crying as a biological imperative, but nowhere is that response as strong as in a mother.

What’s really going on in a mother’s brain when they hear a baby crying?

1. The brain lights up with activity

Mother’s respond to their baby’s cry instinctively. MRI’s taken of a mother’s brain when she hears her baby’s cry showed that regions of the brain that are responsible for empathy, caregiving, and movement light up with activity.

The parts of the brain that respond to the sound are ones linked to do-or-die situations requiring immediate reaction. This means that a mother is prompted to respond to that cry instinctively, rather than needing to make a conscious decision to respond.

This is why so many parents have a hard time letting their baby cry instead of immediately comforting them.

2. The brain takes less than a second to respond

A mother responds to a baby’s cry within five seconds of hearing it.

The brain’s response to crying is almost immediate, generally less than one second. If a mother cannot reach the baby to comfort them within five seconds, they may begin to feel distressed themselves. This is why hearing a baby cry for a longer period of time eventually triggers feelings of frustration and anger.

The response time of the brain to a crying baby is twice as fast as most other sounds! The instinct to move, pick up, and speak to the crying baby is almost impossible to ignore.

This is why it is almost impossible to block out the sound of a crying baby… even when there is nothing you can do about it. So, next time you’re on a plane with a crying baby at least you’ll know why nothing you do will block the sound out.

3. The brain rewards this response

Responding to a baby’s cry causes the brain to light up in reward/pleasure areas.

When a mother responds to a baby’s cry and begins to comfort them, the part of the brain that is responsible for rewards/pleasure and happy emotions lights up. It also releases oxytocin, the hormone responsible for forming love-bonds. The brain is physically rewarding the act of comforting the baby by stimulating this part of the brain.

4. It doesn’t have to be your own baby

Mothers respond to an infant’s cry regardless of whether it is their baby or not.

Studies have shown that a mother will respond to their own crying baby in the same way they will respond to a stranger’s baby. Humans are community-driven by nature. Therefore, this response is a way to protect the children of others in the community as well as our own.

Responding to all crying babies in the same way is part of the mentality of “it takes a village to raise a child”. Humans built communities that worked together to survive, and this includes the protection and care of all of the children in that community.

5. Even non-parents respond similarly

Non-parents respond to crying babies almost as quickly as parents.

Studies have shown that non-parents’ brains respond to the sound of a crying baby with the same speed that a parent does. This suggests that the response is hardwired into the brain at birth and not something that happens after forming a bond with a baby.

However, a mother’s response pushes her to physically comfort the baby with much stronger instincts than a woman that is not a mother because of other changes associated with forming those bonds.

6. A mother’s brain physically changes

A mother’s brain is rewired to respond to a crying baby differently.

Studies point to oxytocin, the bonding hormone, as the culprit. Mothers receive large amounts of oxytocin when interacting with their baby in all sorts of circumstances.

It is likely responsible in part for the quick response to a baby’s crying. Some researchers have suggested that more oxytocin is released as a result of vaginal birth, breastfeeding, and skin to skin contact that will lead to an even stronger response to the sound of a baby crying.

7. It’s not just humans that respond this way

Mammals of all kinds respond to the cries of their babies the same way. Mammals almost universally give birth to babies that require a lot of care and protection for the first bit of their lives so it makes sense that the same imperative response to their babies’ cries would be hardwired into their brains.

Oftentimes, responding quickly to their babies’ cries can mean the difference between life and death. Interestingly, some mammals also respond to the cries of others species’ babies because the sounds are so similar. Deer have been known to respond to the cries of cats and humans. Anyone that’s ever been around a litter of kittens can tell you that a crying kitten can be very hard to ignore as well.

Conclusion

Humans, especially mothers of infants, are hardwired to respond to the sound of a baby’s cry. This was built into our brains as a way to ensure the continuation of the species. Our brains light up like Christmas trees when we hear a baby crying, triggering first our immediate response and empathetic areas, and then our pleasure/reward centers.

The response to pick up, hold, and even speak to the crying baby as a way to comfort them is almost impossible to ignore for any parents.