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12 March, 2009

Babies Shame Mothers Into Caring For Them

At last I understand why babies cry.

I've puzzled over this for many, many years. A baby's cry is loud, grating and nerve-wracking. My own sweet little daughter used to bawl so loudly that the woman in the house across the street could hear it. And that should have been a clue. But I was so caught up in the idea that a baby's cry was to alert the mother to its needs - even if every predator for miles also gets the message that a tasty human morsel is there for the eating.

Now, research by a UK/Puerto Rican team led by Dr Stuart Semple, has shown that rhesus macaque mothers respond differently to their crying babies depending on who is nearby. If there are other adults around to be irritated and made aggressive by the baby's wailing, the mother is more likely to tend and feed the baby than if no other adults are nearby.

How many times have you seen it - a mother in a supermarket, or on a bus, with a screeching baby and everyone around frowning and tutting and muttering about what a disgrace it is? And the poor mother, cringing under the onslaught of all that social disapproval.

It's so obvious once you're told. My daughter wasn't just crying for attention from her mother, she was crying to get on the nerves of the woman across the street, so that she would put pressure on the child's mother to do something about that damned baby! That's why crying has to be so loud. That's why it has to set your nerves jangling.

Raising a child is exhausting. There comes a time when every woman needs a break from it, just ten minutes to herself! But the child's needs never take a break, and something has to be done about keeping its mother's nose to the grindstone. The baby is already using all the maternal instincts it can exploit to keep itself cared for, so what else can it use when its mother is exhausted? Social pressures, disapproval, the threat of ostracisation, even the threat of violence (particularly from males nearby).

Who's a clever baby?

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