Papa, Can You Hear Me?
Popular Science|Winter 2019
Most of us can’t ignore a baby’s cry.
Sara Chodosh

We can choose not to respond, but those shattering notes will infiltrate our noggins no matter what. The wail (however irritating it might be) sparks a response that ensures one thing: survival. Data suggests that the noise tips off parents more than childless adults— and women more than men—but a baby’s screech is tuned to trigger every grown-up. Each moment of screaming contains crucial information about a child’s level of distress. Throughout the seven seconds of audio below, acoustic clues in the sound waves signal just how urgently a kiddo needs help.

1 Attracting Attention

During late pregnancy and following birth, caregivers produce elevated levels of prolactin and oxytocin, which prime their ears to be especially sensitive to the frequency range of a newborn’s cries. These hormones also promote nurturing behaviors—like physically comforting the kid—and boost positive feelings that can help keep new moms and dads from throwing their hands up in despair.

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