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They Say: Baby's Cry a 'Natural High' For Some, Disgust for Others

By Madeline Holler |

crying-baby-natural-highA new study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that some moms get a natural high when they hear their baby’s cry. For others, however, the cry triggers a part of the brain that produces feelings of disgust.

The difference, interestingly, has nothing to do with that particular mother-baby bond.

Instead, each mother’s reaction depends on how bonded she was with her own mother.

The study, out of Baylor University, sought to uncover neurological reasons for child neglect. In the first part of the study, 30 mothers underwent brain scans while looking at pictures of their 7-month-olds with different expressions. In another part of the study, the volunteers had their blood drawn before, during and after playing with their child. Finally, volunteers’ attachments to their own mothers and caregivers was also assessed.

For mothers who had secure attachments to their own mothers, images of their babies with happy or sad faces produced a reward signal in the brain — the natural high. Blood tests also showed interacting with their kid triggered a surge of oxytocin — the body’s endorphins needed for breastfeeding, chilbirth, etc.

Mothers who had an insecure attachments in childhood didn’t get the oxytocin surge or the reward signal. Rather, the insula, a region of the brain associated with disgust, unfairness or pain was activated.

So what does all this mean? Bad parenting is the mother’s fault and her mother’s fault and her mother’s mother’s fault and so on? Because that’s what it looks like.

Lead researcher, Dr. Lane Strathearn, concludes that it showed how a “mother’s own experience in childhood may shape how she responds to her baby’s needs.”

That hardly sounds earth-shattering for anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the past 100 years. But what’s interesting is that there’s a very specific chemical and physiological response — and not necessarily one of degrees: it’s either you get the surge or you don’t; either the reward region is triggered or the disgust one.

What researchers found was that, basically, a childhood without a close attachment to a caregiver could mean some mothers’ involuntary response to their children’s emotions automatically get interpreted by their brains as something negative. Neglect — or a less than lovey-dovey response to a crying child — isn’t a personal and/or moral failing. In fact, considering all that we do for brain problems (depression, for example), child neglect now sounds as if, in some cases, it could be a treatable condition!

This makes me wonder, too, whether there could be work-arounds. The human brain is famously malleable. Could a mother raised in neglect learn to get a natural high from her baby’s cries? Sounds promising.

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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7 thoughts on “They Say: Baby's Cry a 'Natural High' For Some, Disgust for Others

  1. Sue says:

    When my baby cries it makes me sad! They is no high note there for me except the pitch that is peircing my ears. Babied cry to let us know they are unhappy most of the time. So how a mom can get a high over that I dont get. It is the exceptionally needy not so balanced mom who read into it selfishly who can be happy to har their babies cry. I for onw would love to never hear my doll cry. And when she does I am over there making it right so she can stop and be content again. will stand testament to may a mom who has said how unahppy and irritated they get to hear their babies cry NEVER heard a happy comment yet!

  2. Deena says:

    Sue – it’s not that the mothers are happy that baby cries. It’s that oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is the love hormone. It’s what bonds us to our children, and our partners. It’s released during labor, birth, breastfeeding and during sex. What the article is saying is that there is a positive response from mom – rather than one of revulsion when baby cries.

  3. SE says:

    Yes, it’s that “Oh!! My poor sweetpea!” feeling . . .

  4. Jackie says:

    I have a condition called Hyperacusis, it is a sensory defensiveness towards sudden loud sounds. This means if a baby cries, it causes me pain. This does not mean, as the doctor would be so arrogant to suggest, my parents were bad to me.

    Parents who do not appreciate when someone tells them their child’s noise causes the other person pain, shows a incredibly disturbing lack of empathy for others. Why do people validate this, when we have bullies in high school, who were raised by these entitled parents. We should be concerned about children who are being raised by parents who have a self-centered view. We shouldn’t be supporting these parents in their belief that the world should revolve around them just because they had a child, and the delusional belief that there is something wrong with people who don’t like children. Heck, everyone should get over the notion something is wrong with people, who don’t go nuts over babies.

    The person who wrote this article is contributing to the problem, not helping solve it.

  5. [...] Were you a wimpy soother or a cold-hearted CIO-er? Did you think you would be when you were pregnant or are you surprised how soft/hardcore you were? Or are you one of these moms who gets high from your kid’s cry? [...]

  6. D says:

    Neglecting your kid is a personal and moral failing… I don’t care about your brain chemicals or your attachment to your mother.

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