It’s the moment that you’ve been waiting for – hearing your baby’s first cry can bring on a rush of emotions and excitement. But did you know that it can also be an indication of her health and well being? Let’s look at what her first cry could mean.
The First Cry
Normally, your baby should cry as soon as she’s born. This hearty cry wakes up her lungs and helps her breathe.1 And your baby’s cry even contributes to how well she does on her very first test. Apgar is a test given to babies at one minute and five minutes past birth. At one minute the test tells you how well the baby went through the birthing process and at five minutes it tells you how well she’s doing in the world out of the mother’s womb. The baby’s color, respiratory effort, heart rate, reflexes, and muscle tone are observed during the test and scored on a scale of zero to two. So the maximum total score that a baby can get is ten. However, you should know that babies rarely get a perfect ten because they usually have blue feet or hands which results in a lower score under ‘color’. At the one minute a score between seven and ten is normal while a score between 4 and six means that your baby may need some assistance breathing and a score below 4 could call for life saving measures. At five minutes a score below 7 might mean that the baby requires to be monitored.
So what does your baby’s cry have to do with her Apgar score? Well, the strength of your baby’s cry is an indication of how good her respirations is. According to the Apgar scale if the baby’s not breathing she gets a score of 0, if her cry is weak and sounds like grunting or whimpering then she gets a score of 1, and a strong, good cry gets a 2.2 3
Why Does A Baby Cry When She’s Born?
Imagine being snug in a warm, dark, comforting place and then suddenly being turned out into a strange, cold, bright, world, you might feel like having a good cry too! Researchers theorize that cold, light, pain, and noise could start off your baby’s first cry. Gravity too has been implicated as the baby could be responding to being pushed out from the relative weightlessness of floating in amniotic fluid in the womb to feeling her full weight in the world.4
But could there also be a deeper physiological reason behind your baby’s first cry? Let’s take a look at what happens when your baby has that first cry and how it can help her breathe. Before your baby is born, she takes in oxygen from the the placenta through the umbilical cord, but as soon as she leaves the womb she must breathe on her own. A forceful cry expands and fills ups her tiny lungs. It also gets rid of any remaining amniotic fluid that can obstruct breathing. Usually the process of passing through the birth canal squeezes out amniotic fluid from the lungs but it’s that first cry which removes any residue left behind in the lungs, mouth, or nose. Now as babies born through born through cesarean don’t experience the pressure of passing through the birth canal they may have trouble clearing amniotic fluid and may need extra suctioning of the mouth, nose, and throat.5
Since a baby’s first cry is critical in helping her transition from depending on her mother for oxygen to using her own lungs doctors take immediate action if a baby doesn’t cry. In the past babies were held upside down and slapped on their back to make them cry. Now, however, experts feel that this is best avoided as you run the risk of injuring the baby or dropping her. Instead, massaging a baby’s back with a warm towel or tapping her soles can stimulate her to cry. If the baby still doesn’t breathe respiration can be artificially initiated.6
What Does Your Baby’s Cry Mean?
We all know that when a baby cries it could mean that she’s hungry or tired but your baby’s cry can also provide a clue to many other aspects of her well being.
It’s A Health Signal
A cry’s pitch is regulated by the brain stem and cranial nerves that run from the brain stem to the muscles linked to the larynx. So it can give you information on the nervous system of the baby. Experts even feel that a baby’s cry can be influenced by factors like birth injuries, and prenatal exposure to alcohol.
- Babies with the genetic disorder known as Cri du chat (which means the cry of the cat in French) have a distinctive high pitched cry.7
- Researchers who studied the cries of six month old infants found that those at risk for autism had atypical cries. Those who were at risk were observed to have higher pitched cries with a more variable frequency. 8
- Sometimes it can be challenging to tell when babies are in pain but paying attention to a baby’s crying can be useful because non pain related cries may be different from pain related cries. Pain cries usually have a somewhat longer pause between the first and second cry. The first utterance also tends to be louder and longer (around 4 to 5 second or more rather than the usual 2 or 3 seconds).9
- One study that looked at the cries of babies between 37 weeks and 42 weeks found that those who were born via cesarean were more likely to have a flat melody type cry while those who had a vaginal delivery showed complex modulation in their cries. The researchers suggest that this indicates that babies who have a vaginal delivery have greater control over respiratory functions. 10
Your Baby’s “Talking” To You
Experts suggest that a baby is already picking up sound signals from the outside world while in the womb during the last trimester. In fact, studies indicate that babies who are just a few days old can imitate the intonation patterns of their mother tongue.11 So paying attention to your baby’s cries can help you figure out what she’s trying to say. For instance, you may find that when she’s hungry she lets out a short low pitched cry that rises and falls. Learning your baby’s language can help you respond to her needs. But don’t worry if you don’t always manage to comfort her. Sometimes babies cry just to work off excess energy. She’ll be back to her contented self soon enough!12
|↑1||A timeline of a baby’s first hour. Society for Science & the Public.|
|↑2||Apgar score. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑3||Your Child’s First Test: The Apgar. American Pregnancy Association.|
|↑4||Sloan, Mark. Birth day: a pediatrician explores the science, the history, and the wonder of childbirth. Ballantine Books, 2009.|
|↑5||Care of the Baby in the Delivery Room. STANFORD CHILDREN’S HEALTH.|
|↑6||Baby’s first cry: critical moment in delivery room. Parkland Health & Hospital System.|
|↑7, ↑9||What Science Hopes to Learn From a Baby’s Cries. The Wall Street Journal.|
|↑8||Sheinkopf, Stephen J., Jana M. Iverson, Melissa L. Rinaldi, and Barry M. Lester. “Atypical Cry Acoustics in 6‐Month‐Old Infants at Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Autism Research 5, no. 5 (2012): 331-339.|
|↑10||Branco, Anete, Mara Behlau, and Maria Inês Rehder. “The neonate cry after cesarean section and vaginal delivery during the first minutes of life.” International journal of pediatric otorhinolaryngology 69, no. 5 (2005): 681-689.|
|↑11||Mampe, Birgit, Angela D. Friederici, Anne Christophe, and Kathleen Wermke. “Newborns’ cry melody is shaped by their native language.” Current biology 19, no. 23 (2009): 1994-1997.|
|↑12||Responding To Your Baby’s Cries. American Academy of Pediatrics.|