Every parent the world over waits for that moment after birth when they first hear the cry of their child. The cry is a sign of health, of vigour and a relief that all should be ok. I had never questioned when the infant cry develops but one thing is for sure, it doesn’t matter whether you are born at 25 , 30 or 37 weeks, the babies all seem to make it after delivery. Much like suck, rooting and swallowing which we know begin in utero as we can see fetal swallowing movements the question is does cry begin in utero.
Evidence for an In-Utero Start
Before I get into the answer to this let me address the title question. A cry is produced as a baby exhales and moves air in a turbulent fashion across the vocal cords. Since a fetus is not breathing air it would seem impossible for a cry to be produced by a fetus. It doesn’t mean though that a fetus can’t try to at least practice and get ready for birth.
Back in 2005, a research team from New Zealand sought to answer this question in their paper Fetal homologue of infant crying. The authors described a case of a 33 week infant who was exposed to an artificial larynx generating a sound on the maternal abdomen while she was undergoing an ultrasound. The artificial larynx produced a vibroacoustic stimulation (VAS) after first keeping monitoring the fetus with ultrasound for a period of 20 minutes. The duration of the VAS was for 40 seconds and during this time the fetus was found to turn its head upon hearing the VAS and appeared to startle.
As per the authors the fetus underwent the following steps after the stimulation.
“There is a brief expiration that is followed by a deep inspiratory phase with a subsequent pronounced expiratory phase. This expiration is associated with jaw opening, taut tongue, and chest depression (fig 2). It is immediately followed by three augmented breaths with progressive increase in chest rise and head tilt (fig 3).”
At the end of this episode the chin was found to be quivering. This as I see it is the best and first description of fetal crying. While it doesn’t make a sound I believe at least that this is the beginning of an important step in development that will prepare the infant after birth to clear its lungs and inflate them with air.
The question now I ask is when does this develop? As I mentioned earlier the ability to cry is definitely present in preterm infants at pretty much any gestational age I have seen all the way down to 22 weeks. Much like other reflexes present at birth and the swallowing function mentioned earlier this must develop for a reason and I am hopeful that future work will uncover when this first appears and eventually add an explanation of what function this in-utero crying movements serve!
For commentary on this including a video of the first and second cry for this infant have a look at the full video below