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This Is What Happens When Babies Cry In the Womb

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This Is What Happens When Babies Cry In the Womb

Many parents treasure the chance to get a sneak peek at their babies through ultrasounds during a woman’s pregnancy. They delight in the chance to see their little one in real-time, showing off new skills like kicking, waving, or sucking his thumb.
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Parents can witness their baby developing in the womb today more than ever, but they may still wonder just how much a baby can do while still in the womb. We know that babies can practice sucking while still in the womb and that they can swallow1 , for example, but what about crying? Do babies cry in the womb? We all know that babies spend a significant amount of time crying outside of the womb2 (usually at 3 AM, right?), but do they start flexing those crying muscles early on in their development?
How Babies Respond in the Womb
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Researchers first began to be curious about how babies respond in the womb when they noticed that pretty much immediately after birth, babies show a preference for their mother’s voice.3 Did the babies learn their mothers’ voices while they were still in the womb? Or did they just automatically know who their mothers were by nature?
Now, we know, of course, that babies do start learning and responding to the world while they are still in the womb. In fact, studies have shown us that babies start responding a lot earlier than you might expect when they are still in the womb. One 2015 study, for example, found that the earliest a baby was recorded responding to sound in the womb was 16 weeks old4 , which is actually before the ears are even fully developed. The study also found that talking and touching the baby in the womb directly affected the fetus and that fetuses will kick more and move more as a result.
We now know that babies start learning about the world outside of the womb while they are still inside of the womb. They respond to external stimuli, such as sounds, a mother’s movement, light, and big siblings pressing on mom’s belly.
Babies in utero can get startled, move around1 , urinate, and as every woman who’s been pregnant knows, do a mean somersault. But what about crying? It seems like it would be difficult to tell if a baby is actually crying in the womb, thanks to all that amniotic fluid and the fact that a baby in the womb might not have much to complain about—after all, she’s got a pretty cozy set-up going on in there.
What Happens When a Baby Cries?
Although you might think of crying as something that’s pretty simple, there’s actually a lot that goes into a cry. In order for a baby to accomplish crying, there has to be a lot of coordination between multiple systems in the body, including face muscles, airway regulation, and breathing. The main thing that needs to happen for a baby to cry is some sort of vocalization—aka sound. A 2004 study demonstrated that there is both a non-vocal and vocal component to crying.5 So when a baby starts learning how to cry in the womb, they are exhibiting the non-vocal side of a cry.
But what’s most important to recognize with a baby crying is that a cry is an important developmental milestone.6 A baby being able to cry demonstrates that his or her brain and nervous system and body are working correctly to accomplish crying. So a cry is much more than meets the eye—a cry actually represents that your baby is:
Recognizing some sort of outside stimuli happening7
Processing that the stimuli is something potentially harmful or threatening and thus a negative stimulus
Reacting to the stimuli through a set of multiple pathways, from physically moving away to trying to vocalize8 to brain sensory awareness
Crying ensures the baby is able to signal to a caregiver that he or she needs help, is in distress, or needs to be moved from a threatening situation and is literally a survival mechanism.
Crying Babies in the Womb
The short answer is that yes, babies do cry in the womb, but scientists aren’t sure to what exact degree because obviously, crying is not the same inside the uterus for the baby. A baby crying in-utero might look a little different than a baby crying outside of the womb, for example.
This same 2004 study was further developed and compared behaviors of a baby outside of the womb with behaviors of a baby inside of the womb.9 They identified 5 total states that a baby has: quiet sleep, active state, quiet awake, active awake, and crying. Of those 5 states, only the first four were thought to also exist inside the womb. But the study, which was observing the fetal reaction to exposure to tobacco and cocaine, actually recorded what appeared to show a baby in the womb crying.
The researchers noted that the baby exhibited behaviors that correlated to what crying would look like outside of the womb: inhaling and opening its mouth while the tongue went down, then displaying three augmented breaths.9
The third and last breath featured a pause on the inhale and an extended breath out with “settling.” Basically, what you would picture if a baby did a brief cry. In that particular study, researchers found evidence of crying behavior in at least 10 other babies as well.
When the study was first released in 2004, it was groundbreaking, because it provided the first video evidence of a baby “crying” in the womb5 and it really changed the way researchers thought about fetal behavior, activity, and development. Interestingly enough, one of the babies actually exhibited the crying behavior right after labor started in the mother. This makes sense when you think about—the baby was starting quite the wild ride in the womb!
Ultimately, based on what the study found, the term “neonatal cry” was coined9 , because although much of the processing behind the baby crying and the actual physical components of the baby crying were the same, such as its body movements, accompanying grimaces and frowns, and inhale and exhale patterns that correlate with ex-utero crying, it’s not exactly the same type of crying. The main difference? The baby isn’t able to make a sound yet.

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