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Developmental, Emotion

Systematic evidence of fake crying by a baby

Another insight from this research included the finding that most of the time the babies’ crying was followed by continued negative affect.

15 January 2014

By Christian Jarrett

Crying is an important survival behaviour for babies – the world is informed that they are in distress and need prompt attention. Many parents also describe what looks like fake crying by their infants. It seems as though the child is pretending to be in distress merely as a way to get attention. Some people doubt that babies can really be capable of such deception, but now Hiroko Nakayama in Japan has published the results from six months’ intensive study of crying by two babies, and she reports persuasive evidence of fake crying by one of them.

Nakayama filmed the babies in their homes for sixty minutes twice a month, for six months. The videos were then carefully coded by two researchers in five-second segments. Sixty-eight episodes of crying were documented for Baby R, aged 7 months at the study start; and 34 episodes for Baby M, aged 9 months at the study start.

The analysis focused on the presence of positive and negative affect (emotion) in the minutes and seconds prior to and after episodes of crying. All of Baby M’s crying episodes were preceded by clear evidence of distress and negative affect, as betrayed by grimaces, vocalisations and downturned lips.

Just over 98 per cent of Baby R’s crying episodes were also preceded by negative affect, but there was a single instance at 11 months where her crying immediately followed positive emotion (indicated by smiling or laughing), and then positive emotion abruptly followed the bout of crying. The mother recognised this behaviour as fake crying, and the emotional analysis appeared to confirm this. “Infant R appeared to cry deliberately to get her mother’s attention,” said Nakayama, “[then] she showed smile immediately after her mother came closer.”

People might have a negative impression of “fake crying” said Nakayama, but they shouldn’t do. It attracts the attention of the care-giver, and “such individual interaction contributes greatly not only to an infant’s social development but also to their emotional development. 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.”

Another insight from this research included the finding that most of the time the babies’ crying was followed by continued negative affect. Positive affect only returned gradually with care-giver physical contact, or, in the case of Baby R, a combination of physical contact and eye contact.

It can only be speculation with such a small sample, but one possible reason for more frequent crying in Baby R, and her use of fake crying, is that she had two siblings, whereas Baby M was an only child. Baby R may therefore have needed to compete more for her mother’s attention. “Siblings can enrich social interactions at home and increase their variety,” said Nakayama. “Such environmental factors are known to stimulate the development of communication skills of infants.”

Further reading

Nakayama H (2013). Changes in the affect of infants before and after episodes of crying. Infant behavior & development, 36 (4), 507-12 PMID: 23732624