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Your Crying Baby Is Playing You

Photograph by Getty Images

And the award for best actor in a family drama goes to: the baby.

Like method actors the world over, young babies can turn their thoughts and feelings into lifelike performances which elicit from their audiences—mostly mom, really—mostly ... attention. At least according a new study out of Japan on fake crying.

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Sound manipulative? It sort of is. But there's a payoff for everyone, according the study's author Dr. Hiroka Nakayama of Sacred Heart University in Tokyo. The fake crying, determined by actions prior to the tears, brought mom and baby closer together and seemed to be laying the groundwork for communication. "Infants who are capable of fake crying might communicate successfully with their caregivers in this way on a daily basis. Fake crying could add much to their relationships."

The study, which is super small and appears in a recent issue of the journal Infant Behavior and Development, is based on Nakayama's regular and recorded observations of two girls, ages 7 and 9 months old, over a six-month period. Most instances of crying during the observation period were preceded by some form of baby-level distress. However, during several observations, crying was preceded by positive emotions or when the baby was in a good mood. In one instance, the younger baby had been happy until the mother moved away from the play area. When she returned, the crying stopped immediately, and the baby smiled.

The fact that young babies have figured out that squinting their eyes and squawking a bit gets grown-ups to meet their needs is pretty cool.

For anyone who has spent enough hours with infants, this fake crying comes as no surprise. All three of my kids were big on the fake crying, so much so that I just figured it was part of the baby development package. Also? It was sort of cute and I'll admit to instigating some of it just to, you know, have fun with it (stage mom).

What I didn't notice was any difference in the style or frequency of the fake crying among my kids, but then again I wasn't keeping records. Nakayama, however, found that the younger baby in her study was a more frequent fake crier—something she attributes to the presence of siblings and the baby's desire to compete for mom's attention. (Or maybe the girl is just a drama queen?)

Of course, calling it fake crying kind of turns what is actually going on—early communication behaviors, maybe even tapping into empathy—into something pathological. I've always cringed when people call babies and little kids manipulative. Sure, they're often trying on what appear to be clever ways to get something from their caregivers, but then they're not well-equipped to simply state their needs. They're sort of a bunch of firing synapses still wiring up and figuring out how to get from one minute to the next. The fact that young babies have figured out that squinting their eyes and squawking a bit gets grown-ups to meet their needs is pretty cool.

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This makes me wonder, too, if getting "fake" cries responded to doesn't also give those kids a leg up in verbal development. Maybe that will be a future study?

In the meantime, babies, let's take that crying scene one more time from the top. And this time, like you really mean it. Action!

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