Human Nature

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 355–389

The early crying paradox

A modest proposal
  • Ronald G. Barr

DOI: 10.1007/BF02734051

Cite this article as:
Barr, R.G. Human Nature (1990) 1: 355. doi:10.1007/BF02734051


In contemporary Western societies, infants in the first 3 months cry more than at any other time during their life. Although this crying is believed to function to assure nutrition, protection, and mother-infant interaction thought to be essential for later attachment, it also predisposes to complaints of excessive crying (“colic”), discontinuing breast-feeding, and, in the extreme case, child abuse. A resolution of this apparent paradox is proposed based on evidence that elements of caregiving are important determinants of some aspects of early crying. It is argued that early human crying under caretaking conditions typical in Western societies is characterized by prolonged crying bouts, that it is specifically the length of crying bouts (rather than frequency or pattern) that is affected by caregiving practice, and that prolonged crying bouts are probably not characteristic with caretaking practices typical in non-Western societies and possibly in our evolutionary past. It is suggested that caregiving behaviors may recruit normal physiological functions that potentiate cry bout duration in Western caregiving contexts, but reduce it in others. Frequent, short bouts are sufficient, and probably better suited than long bouts, to promote all the positive and presumably adaptive functions claimed for infant crying. Furthermore, they may have provided a mechanism by which infants could enhance their own fitness.

Key words

Crying Fussing Colic Caregiving Mother-infant interaction Distress Carrying 

Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald G. Barr
    • 1
  1. 1.Montreal Children’s HospitalMontrealCanada

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