Parenting

Infant crying: How does it affect our brain?

Editorial intern Tara-Michelle Ziniuk responds to a recent study that claims the sound of infants crying is less likely to affect a man than a woman.

Photo: iStockphoto

Last week, a story published in the Toronto Star claimed that “the wailing of a hungry infant is less likely to bother a man than a woman.”

According to what seems like a pretty minimal study — only 18 men and women were involved — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) said brain scans showed that “men’s brains remained in a resting state” when listening to recordings of hungry babies. (I don’t even want to know the process they used to make sure babies were hungry enough to cry, and then recording them instead of, oh, feeding them.)
 
A mom-friend I made at my prenatal class and I had our first babies two days apart and lived only a few blocks away from each other. I remember when our now-toddlers were infants, we were on one of our neighbourhood walk/coffee dates and she said, “The poor men, they’re just not built to wake up with the babies in the night. It must be so hard for them.” My friend, whose opinions and experiences I totally respect, and who is a nurse in her professional life, had a theory that “the men” didn’t have the hormonal make-up required for night wakings and feedings; that their bodies just didn’t respond the same way as ours. Except for the leaky boob factor, I was skeptical.
 
I was a single parent at the time, and my body felt destroyed by the overnights my daughter and I were having. But I can’t imagine it being a case of whether my brain or hormones made me want to care for my baby: it was my responsibility.

I think studies like this NIH one inadvertently reinforce gender stereotypes, even if they claim to be trying to make some sense out of things for “depressed moms.” Moms are tired. And no doubt dads are too. But I don’t buy into this idea that it’s extra work for dads to tend to their crying babies because their brains forget to tell them to. Not to get into a nature vs. nurture debate, but the reality is many men are also raised thinking that caregiving is a woman’s job. (And not to getting into hating on the media — media can be good; I work in media! — but we know that the media definitely reinforces these stereotypes.) It makes me think of a tweet I read and “favourited” recently that said: “I hate hearing fathers say they are ‘babysitting’ their own kids when they have them out with them. Parenting is not babysitting!”
 
Maybe women’s brains are more affected by crying because women are often more tired from doing a majority of the parenting in their households. Maybe the scans would show them more calm and relaxed, if they knew someone was going to feed their crying baby if they didn’t. I don’t even mean to be down on dads here, just these researchers. Mostly, I just wonder what these types of studies really prove.

What are your thoughts? Tweet me at @therealrealTMZ.

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