Study: When baby cries, parents can't focus on a task

Science proves what parents have long known: When your baby is crying, it's nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else.

Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

Because I’m either crazy or a glutton for punishment, I worked through both of my maternity leaves. In 2012, I blogged once a week and returned to my gig at Today’s Parent at the six-month mark. In 2015, I applied for and took a new job when my youngest was just four months old. I started taking calls and answering emails right away, and I physically went back to the office when Juliette was just shy of nine months.

In theory, and in terms of my career trajectory, these decisions felt like the right thing. I’ve always been good at time management, at prioritizing tasks, and I was confident I could handle the required division of my attention. But there’s one thing I hadn’t considered, and it made all the difference: my baby’s cry. I just could not (and still can’t) concentrate at all when they cried, regardless of the reason and the fact that my husband, Blaine, always had the situation well in hand.

As it turns out, my lack of focus when my girls shrieked isn’t my fault. A new study out of the University of Toronto, released today, found that “cognitive conflict” is a natural response when parents hear an infant’s cry. The distress call “rattles the adult’s executive function,” or the part of the brain that helps you make decisions and power through your to-do list. The study's participants were asked to identify the colour of a printed word, ignoring the word’s meaning, while listening to two-second recordings of a baby crying or a baby laughing. The results? Participants' brain activity when the baby cried showed greater cognitive conflict and reduced attention to the assignment.

We know that parental instincts are somewhat hardwired, but the interesting part of this study is the consideration of perception and the innate task triaging we do. “If we simply had an automatic response every time a baby started crying, how would we think about competing concerns in the environment or how best to respond to a baby’s distress?” says David Haley, co-author and associate professor of psychology at University of Toronto Scarborough, who runs the Parent-Infant Research Lab.

“Parents are constantly making a variety of everyday decisions and have competing demands on their attention,” says Joanna Dudek, a graduate student in the lab and lead author on the study. “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?” The theory is that the conflict in cognition is helping a parent decide whether to tend to the child or the environment, which overrides a human’s deep-seated, evolutionary desire to put the baby first.

The next phase of the research will identify how the conflict evolves in new mothers hearing the cries of their own children. I’d be willing to bet that first-time new moms will struggle to focus on anything other than the cry; I can still point out which blog posts I wrote during Sophie’s witching hours in 2012. Not my best work. But at least now I can blame biology.


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