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The sound of a baby crying is something that instantly demands our attention as we try to find out whether they are hungry, tired, too hot or cold, need their diaper  changed, are in pain, or are simply overwhelmed.

A study has revealed that the tearful screaming of a young child can actually alter the way parents think and act. The brain activity of people listening to a baby crying showed they paid less attention to what they were doing and it impaired their ability to perform a task even after the crying stopped.

Researchers at the University of Toronto asked volunteers to complete a task involving identifying colors after listening to a baby crying or laughing. The results showed that those who listened to the crying sound were slower, paid less attention, and experienced more ‘conflict processing’ than those who heard laughter. Cognitive conflict processing is what controls our attention, which is a vital function when completing a task or making a decision.

Lead author of the study Joanna Dudek, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, said, “Parents are constantly making a variety of everyday decisions and have competing demands on their attention. They may be in the middle of doing chores when the doorbell rings and their child starts to cry. How do they stay calm, cool and collected, and how do they know when to drop what they’re doing and pick up the child?”

David Haley, study co-author, explained that despite the displeasure infant cries have evoked in adult responses, it might also create an ‘adaptive’ response by switching on the cognitive controls parents use in deciding how to most efficiently help their child.

“If an infant’s cry activates cognitive conflict in the brain, it could also be teaching parents how to focus their attention more selectively,” he said.

“It’s this cognitive flexibility that allows parents to rapidly switch between responding to their baby’s distress and other competing demands in their lives—which, paradoxically, may mean ignoring the infant momentarily.”

Haley adds it also reveals an important adaptive cognitive function in the human brain. The research could also help contribute to current research surrounding the idea that caring for babies is ‘pre-programmed’ to be of high priority in our brains.

Scientists have discovered the sound of a mother’s voice is far more powerful than previously believed. It can cause the brains of children to ‘light up’ with activity, researchers have found.

As well as engaging the parts of the brain responsible for processing sounds, it also stimulates activity in the centers involved in emotion, reward, social function, face recognition and the way children detect what is personally relevant to them.

The effect is particular to each parent-child relationship, as children did not react in the same way when they heard parents of other children saying the same words.

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