Although crying is a lifelong human function, it is much more important during early childhood. Until they develop more complex behavioral patterns, such as gestures and language, crying is the spontaneous way that babies communicate their needs to adults.

In this article we will describe the functions of crying focusing on the 4 main types described by Peter H. Wolff: hunger, anger, pain and attention or frustration. Each has a different pattern of presentation, although anger is a variant of hunger and attention or frustration is not always taken into account.

Functions of crying in infants

Crying is the main mode of communication for babies . Young children respond to their bodily states of discomfort through the movements, sounds and physiological reactions that make up this phenomenon. Although there is no intentional communication, adults naturally respond when they see or hear a crying baby.

In particular, scientific research has shown that mothers have similar responses to anxiety or stress when their babies cry: the heart rate speeds up and the conductance of the skin increases as a result of increased sweat secretion.

Theoretical perspectives

From the evolutionary perspective, crying is understood as an adaptation of the human species to life in society. Throughout history our organism has adapted to express crying and to respond when it occurs in others. In babies, crying would have been especially effective in facilitating survival by promoting support.

T. Berry Brazelton, author of the well-known Newborn Behavioral Assessment Scale, hypothesized that crying has the general function of emotional discharge when the baby is subjected to environmental overstimulation. It would therefore be a way of maintaining homeostasis in the nervous system.

Aletha Solter, an evolutionary psychologist who studied with Jean Piaget, stated that crying can be beneficial in releasing tension when it is not due to hunger, pain or other easily identifiable causes. Solter, like other experts, said that the best way to handle babies’ crying is to hold them and let it end naturally.

The 4 types of crying

Through his clinical observations Peter H. Wolff identified four basic types of crying in infants and young children. In addition to their functions, these types of crying differ in their physical characteristics , so it is often possible to discover what is wrong with the baby from the crying topography.

Of course, variations of each type can occur, and in fact it has been shown that parents more easily distinguish the cries of their own babies than those of others. This is associated with familiarity and the fact that little ones imitate the timbre of their parents’ voice, the main influence on their communicative development.

1. Hunger (basic)

The basic cry is regular and rhythmic : first the baby cries briefly, followed by a shorter pause for inspiration; then the cries and inspirations alternate. This type of crying often occurs in response to feelings of hunger.

2. Angry

This type of crying is similar to hunger, although in this case the cries are more intense and abrupt because the amount of air the baby expels is greater. In addition, the length of the crying periods compared to inspirations is longer than in the basic type.

3. Of pain

The crying in pain moves away from the basic pattern. In this case the burst of crying is not preceded by complaints , so it is more sudden. On the other hand, after the crying the baby holds its breath, unlike the hungry cry and the angry cry.

Research shows that adults are prepared to respond more quickly to cries of pain than the basic one, which is logical considering that it is much more striking.

4. Of attention or frustration

According to Wolff, crying to get attention or to express frustration begins to occur later than the rest, from the third week of life. It is a more limited crying than the previous ones since it is constituted by the appearance of two or three cryings . In this case no breath holding is detected.

Many classifications of crying types do not capture attention or frustration, although their distinctive characteristics make it relevant to separate them from other types.