A Dutch study reveals that crying is often the stimulus that leads some parents to abuse their babies. It also points out which groups of parents are most likely to use this as an excuse for child mistreatment.
Crying is one of the most important ways babies communicate. It is their only method for signaling hunger or discomfort. Most parents respond lovingly, but some do not.
"About five-percent of parents cannot take the child crying and react with abuse, with violence," says Pauline Verloove. She and colleagues at the Netherlands Organization of Applied Scientific Research came up with the five-percent statistic from a study they conducted among parents of more than three thousand infants between the ages of one and six months. It is published in the medical journal Lancet. They asked the adults to answer a questionnaire anonymously about the actions they took to stop their babies' crying. "It's very normal that infants cry one or two or three hours a day, but the reactions of the parents vary, among other things slapping, smothering, and shaking," she says.
The Dutch study found a link between crying babies and mistreatment of them. It not only determined what percentage of parents reacted abusively, but also identified those most likely to do so. "It appears in families where the social pressure is very high, one-parent families or families where both parents are out of work and the income is low. They have a higher risk to react in this way," she says.
Another group of parents likely to mistreat infants are those who worry about the crying or judge it to be excessive. Babies are also significantly more likely to be abused if their parents are immigrants from non-industrial countries.
"That can be, of course, because of the social pressure. Many of these families are under high pressure as immigrants," says Ms. Verloove.
The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, estimates that six out of every 100,000 infants die each year from mistreatment in the 27 richest nations. It says the United States, Mexico, and Portugal have exceptionally high numbers of cases, although the agency also notes that such child abuse appears to be declining in the great majority of industrial countries. The U.N. data and statistics from the U.S. state of California show that battering is most common among the youngest infants, with the rate declining as they grow older.
California pediatrician Clare Sheridan of the Loma Linda University Children's Hospital says the Dutch study's finding that crying leads to much of this abuse should not be construed to mean it is the child's fault, much as rape victims should not be thought of as having provoked their attackers. "With babies, we don't really hold people accountable. We think, 'Well, gosh, I could have done that," she says. "That could have been me, and therefore if it could have been me, then somehow it's not that bad.'"
Dr. Sheridan says abusive infant caretakers should be held accountable and offered psychological treatment, and doctors should be encouraged to tell parents that a crying baby is healthy and does not need correction.
Researcher Pauline Verloove says that was a major purpose of the study. "As a physician for that kind of age group, you have to aware of the danger of parents who can't cope with crying infants," she says.