Why Keep Baby Happy? A Baby’s Cry Is A Late Signal Of Discomfort

It’s quite common to hear babies cry in movies and television with adults mostly ignoring the baby’s unhappiness. I shake my head. Why are they ignoring baby’s signals? Ignorance? Cruelty? Numbness?

Don’t they know that babies are like fetuses (of other animals) until 18 months of age (Trevathan, 2011)? And so, babies need sensitive, responsive care to keep them in an optimal state while the brain is rapidly growing and setting up its systems and the child’s personality (in response to experience)? Don’t they know the research showing that sensitive care is linked to better and more growth (e.g., Moore et al., 2017) and to all sorts of short and long term outcomes—like mental and physical health (Lanius et al., 2010; Perry et al., 1995)?

A recent study shows that stress in the first two months of life may have a greater impact on central nervous system (CNS) functioning that lasts at least into adolescence (Hambrick et al., 2018). The researchers wanted to study relational poverty and trauma. In a sample of 3,523 children between the age of 6 to 13, ratings of relational health and adverse experiences were tabulated for previous developmental periods (perinatal: 0-2 months; infancy: 2-12 months; early childhood 13 months-4 years; childhood 4-11 years). Relational health was measured as “primary caregiver safety, primary caregiver attunement, consistency in primary caregiving, paternal (or partner) support, kinship support, and community support.” 

Of all prior periods of life, experiences in the first two months of life had the strongest association with children’s CNS functioning, though current relational health was the most predictive of current functioning. CNS functioning was measured as age-typical “cardiovascular regulation (heart rate), sleep, feeding/appetite, fine motor skills, affect regulation, relational skills, arousal, ability to modulate reactivity/inhibit impulsivity, and abstract/reflective thinking skills.”

The potential long-term effects of early experience are not a surprise if you know that human infants are like fetuses of other animals until they are 18 months of age (Montagu, 1968; Trevathan, 2011) and are highly malleable from social experience in the early years of life (Schore, 2019).

Here is new evidence of the importance of keeping babies happy. A longitudinal study by John Coffey (2019) shows that happiness at 18 months predicts educational success at age 29 directly and also indirectly through IQ measures in childhood.

Here is the abstract in bullets:

  • “Parents want their children to be happy, educated, and successful, but are these goals related?
  • People assume that success leads to happiness, but research on adults supports a reverse conceptualization: Happy people are more successful. Is happiness during childhood also linked to later success? Across the lifespan positive affect is linked with expanded cognitive abilities, learning, and resource building that can be adaptive and useful such that it leads to more success.
  • Conversely, ongoing negative affect can reduce opportunities for growth and learning. Thus, happiness at any age may predict future success.
  • Yet, no research has examined if positive and negative affect during infancy predicts childhood cognitive abilities and adult academics success.
  • In a community sample, I hypothesized that higher infant positive affect (but not negative affect) would predict higher childhood cognitive abilities (i.e., IQ) and adult academic success (i.e., education attainment) in a 29-year study (n _ 130).
  • Positive affect, but not negative affect, during infancy (age 1.5), directly predicted higher childhood IQ (ages 6–8) and higher educational attainment (age 29), even after controlling for family socioeconomic status and infant intelligence.
  • Childhood IQ partially explained the link between positive affect during infancy and adult educational attainment.
  • This study advances understanding of how happiness during infancy (before formal education has begun) is linked to gold standard indicators of cognitive abilities and adult academic success.
  • Parents, educators, and policymakers may want to place a higher value on early affective experiences when considering educational success.”

But how do we keep babies happy?

First, don’t let them get distressed. This means: learn the signals of the baby.

A baby’s cry is a late signal of discomfort. Babies have only a limited number of signals—body gestures, facial gestures, fussy noises and crying. Respond as soon as possible.

A baby’s fussing means they are starting to feel panic or fear, basic innate emotions in our mammalian brains (Panksepp, 1998; later the rage system can be activated too). When left in distress routinely, a sense of danger can grow into a deep insecurity, anxiety knitted into the psyche with the stress response easily activated (Sandler, 1960). The child can end up with a feeling of badness and abandonment, leading to insecure attachment with that caregiver. Without the benefit of more supportive relationships, the child can turn into an anxious adult who will seek ways to avoid feeling those terrible feelings, cutting off the self from internal and external stimuli (losing the self and losing relationships) so that fantasy takes over (Schore, 2003). The primitive systems of rage and fear can only be calmed down with ritual actions, false narratives and one or more false selves (Laing, 1990).

Feeling abandoned and unloved, the individual moves forward with necessary self-protective distortions and falsities. In a recent paper of mine for the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, I wrote:

“Avoidance of a sense of non-being, of shame, and of annihilation shapes actions and reactions, with negative transferences to others predominating. Thus, self protectionist ethics reflect an enhancement of the survival systems through early conditioning while right-hemisphere lateralized self-regulatory and relational capacities are underdeveloped or shut down. Unable to stand negative feelings towards the self (e.g. guilt), the individual slides into bullying or being victimized as comfortable psychic locations. What becomes normalized is a role in a dominance hierarchy, either through aggressive action or through appeasement or withdrawal. The self-protective individual is not relaxed and open but braced against others.” (Narvaez, 2019, p. 652)

Second, do what traditional communities do around the world and your ancestors did not so long ago:

  • Respond to baby’s needs within a few seconds to keep them optimally aroused (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005)
  • Babies expect to be held and carried (their bodies know what helps them grow), so do so as much as you can.
  • Provide the evolved nest. Babies want to grow their best and the nest offers the support needed. As social mammals, nested care is what their bodies and brains evolved to expect. A recent study in my lab shows that provisioning components of the evolved nest to young children (affectionate touch and lack of corporal punishment, free play, family togetherness) promotes happiness and thriving in the samples from three countries we studied–USA, China and Switzerland (Narvaez, Woodbury et al., 2019).
The full 28 day card campaign can be found on the Evolved Nest’s website here under Self-Nesting Tools here. Find the card series here.


Coffey, J. K. (2019). Cascades of Infant Happiness: Infant Positive Affect Predicts Childhood IQ and Adult Educational Attainment. Emotion. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000640

Hambrick, Erin & Brawner, Thomas & Perry, Bruce & Brandt, Kristie & Hofmeister, Christine & Collins, Jennifer. (2018). Beyond the ACE score: Examining relationships between timing of developmental adversity, relational health and developmental outcomes in children. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. 10.1016/j.apnu.2018.11.001

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

Laing, R.D. (1959/1990). The divided self. London: Penguin.

Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E., & Pain, C. (Eds.) (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Montagu, A. (1968). Brains, genes, culture, immaturity, and gestation. In A. Montagu (Ed.) Culture: Man’s adaptive dimension (pp. 102-113). New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Sarah R., Lisa M. McEwen, Jill Quirt, Alex Morin, Sarah M. Mah, Ronald G. Barr, W. Thomas Boyce, Michael S. Kobor. Epigenetic correlates of neonatal contact in humans. Development and Psychopathology, 2017; 29 (05): 1517 DOI: 10.1017/S0954579417001213

Narvaez, D. (2019). Evolution, childhood and the moral self.  In R. Gipps & M. Lacewing (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of philosophy and psychoanalysis (pp. 637-659). London: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198789703.013.39

Narvaez, D., Woodbury, R., Gleason, T., Kurth, A., Cheng, A., Wang, L., Deng, L., Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger, E., Christen, M., & Näpflin, C. (2019). Evolved Development Niche Provision: Moral socialization, social maladaptation and social thriving in three countries. Sage Open, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019840123

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakely, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits.” Infant Mental Health Journal, 16, 271–291.

Sandler, J. (1960). The background of safety. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41, 352-356.

Schore, A. N. (2003). Affect dysregulation & disorders of the self. New York, NY: Norton.

Schore, A.N. (2019). The development of the unconscious mind. New York: W.W. Norton.

Trevathan, W. R. (2011). Human birth: An evolutionary perspective, 2nd ed.. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

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