Infant crying is a serious public health issue. Infant cries create stress in those who hear them and may drive parents to adopt coping strategies destructive of themselves or their babies. Parents can benefit from scientifically sound information and advice about infant cries, but most parenting resources draw on outdated ideas that intensify the problem by creating unrealistic expectations or legitimating harmful parenting practices. Young infants cannot be expected to sleep quietly through the night, and leaving crying babies to “cry it out” can be a form of undercare, neglect, or abuse, depending on the specifics of how it is practiced.
Infant crying behavior adheres to some patterns across cultures. Babies cry more in the evening than during the day. After birth, infants cry more and more over their first couple months of life, then gradually less and less over time. Although the total amount of time spent crying varies among cultures and individuals, this pattern adheres and is known as “the normal crying curve”.
There is an important lesson in this pattern: infants cry and parents have limited control over this fact. We all enjoy a sense of control, and parents (and those who advise them) like to think that caregivers can reliably calm a crying baby. Experience reinforces this expectation, since infant cries often can be soothed, for example, by feeding, rocking, and lullabies. However, some infant crying cannot be resolved. Many parents have felt helpless, guilty, and incompetent because they were unable to soothe the cries of their babies.
The normal curve does not mean that offering care to crying infants is pointless. Although the curve holds across cultures, babies cry less overall in “carry” cultures in which babies are consistently carried by adults as opposed to “cache” or “nest” cultures, in which infants spend most of their time in playpens, cribs, etc, without physical contact.
The cache vs carry distinction correlates with a range of other differences, such as sleeping arrangements and length of breastfeeding. When parents look for a concrete reason why a baby cries (hunger, needing a diaper change, overstimulation, etc), they may overlook the more generic reality that babies need to be held, and the more they are held, the less they cry. However, even the constantly carried infant will have bouts of inconsolable crying.
The problem of infant crying is not a purely modern phenomenon. Some of the oldest written texts in the world reflect caregiver concern with inconsolable babies. Like their modern counterparts, ancient Mesopotamian parents turned to professional help when they were exhausted by babies’ cries. While modern parents may bring complaints to pediatricians, ancient parents turned to experts in magical arts.
Several magical incantations for soothing crying infant have survived from Mesopotamia. They may appear to be charming lullaby-like spells, but there is also a sinister element to them. The existence of these spells reflects care and concern for babies, but the content also reflects adult frustration with and hostility towards them when they cry. The example below comes from a Neo-Assyrian collection of spells:
The one who dwelt in darkness where no light shone,
he has come out and has seen the sunlight.
Why does he scream so his mother cries,
and the tears of Antu in heaven stream?
“Who is this who makes such a noise on earth?
If it is a dog, someone give it food.
If it is a bird, someone throw a clod of earth at it.
If it is a mischievous human child,
let someone cast the spell of Anu and Antu over him.
Let his father lie down to get the rest of his sleep.
Let his mother, who has her chores to do, get her chores done.”
The spell is not mine. It is a spell of Ea and Asalluhi,
a spell of Damu and Gula,
a spell of Ningirimma, mistress of spells.
They said it to me, I repeated it.
Incantation to soothe a baby
Ritual: Place bread by the head of the baby. Recite this incantation three times. Rub the bread on him from head to foot. Throw this bread before a dog. The baby will become quiet.
These spells share some common features. The incantation describes the situation and offers a solution. The conclusion attributes the spell to several deities, so that the magician claims divine revelation for the ritual. After the spell a “rubric” describes the purpose of the incantation. Finally, the last section describes a ritual that accompanies the spell. The horizontal lines that bracket the rubric reflect the lines that scribes drew on their clay tablets to distinguish the spell, rubric, and ritual.
The baby is portrayed as having dwelled quietly in the darkness of the womb, but now cries after being born, which prefigures the stillborn infant in Job 3:16 that is described as having never “seen the light.”
The crying is so stressful both to the mother and to the goddess Antu that both cry. The goddess offers a solution to the problem, which is the spell itself. The incantation compares itself to food given to a barking dog and to a clod thrown at a singing bird. The first comparison suggests empathy and caregiving, while the second demonstrates aggression and hostility. It is not clear whether the spell should be understood more like food for the dog or the clod for the bird.
Did this magic actually work? We do not know how the incantations were performed, but they often exhibit poetic structures that suggest musical performance. Since babies respond to calming music and the human voice, it is likely that magicians delivered the incantations in this way. In this respect, the spells may have drawn on some of the same features that make lullabies an effective means of soothing babies. The ritual for this spell involves touching the baby, and babies may have also been held or rocked, which would have helped achieve the desired result. The incantations for soothing a crying infant may have worked – but through means that do not require supernatural explanation.
In some cases, the baby would have stopped crying as a result of the spell (or by coincidence). Even the simple stimulus of having the magician enter the room may have arrested the infant’s cries. In any case, no infant can cry forever, so a magician who stayed in the house long enough could claim credit for the inevitable peace. Faith in the effectiveness of magic served to console the parents who could feel that they were doing everything they could to resolve their baby’s cries.
There is a bleak background to these baby incantations. Those who have read ancient Mesopotamian mythology may recognize that the motif of human noise disturbing deities is a matter for grave concern. In the Babylonian flood story, for example, the gods repeatedly respond to the noise of humans with violence designed to wipe them out so they could rest. The god Enki keeps saving a remnant of humanity that then reproduces, eventually creating noise that disturbs the gods, who again react violently.
At the end of the story, the gods settle on a solution to limit human expansion by having celibate priestesses, infertile women, and a high rate of infant mortality caused by child-snatching demons. In the ancient world, as in many parts of the modern world, infant mortality rates were high: as many as one-third to one-half of infants born alive were dead within a year. This myth offered an explanation for this sad reality by making sense of infant deaths as a means to avoid vengeful divine violence.
Of course, parents wanted their babies to live, and employed magic, medicine, and prayer (which were not entirely distinguishable from one another in the ancient world) to save their babies. Mesopotamian medical texts indicate that infant crying could be interpreted as a symptom that a baby was in danger from a demon, especially the feared Lamashtu. The incantations for crying babies appear in a collection of spells that also include spells against Lamashtu for the protection of babies and pregnant women.
This context of high infant mortality and its cultural interpretation place the baby incantations against a backdrop of high anxiety. The baby’s cries may reflect the danger of a lurking demon who may cause a fatal illness. The gods who could protect the infant are kept awake by its obnoxious noise. As a result, the gods may abandon the infant to the demon and let it die. Quieting the baby thereby takes on an urgency that is not obvious from the spells themselves. These ancient people also did not know about the normal crying curve and worried that their baby’s cries might be symptoms of potentially fatal illness. Modern parents similarly worry that their baby’s cries indicate a medical danger. Sometimes they do, but all babies sometimes cry and refuse to be comforted.
If feeding, diaper changes, and other caregiving tactics do not quiet your baby, try the spell above. Remember that holding, rocking, and lullabies have a powerful magic that scientists have been uncovering.