Do Babies Cry Within the Womb?

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Many parents treasure the chance to get a sneak peek at their babies through ultrasounds during a woman's pregnancy. They delight in the chance to see their little one in real-time, showing off new skills like kicking, waving, or sucking his thumb.

Parents can witness their baby developing in the womb today more than ever, but they may still wonder just how much a baby can do while still in the womb. We know that babies can practice sucking while still in the womb and that they can swallow.

Do babies cry in the womb? We all know that babies spend a significant amount of time crying outside of the womb, but do they start flexing those crying muscles early on in their development?

How Babies Respond in the Womb

Researchers first began to be curious about how babies respond in the womb when they noticed that pretty much immediately after birth, babies show a preference for their mother's voice. Did the babies learn their mothers' voices in utero or did they automatically know who their mothers were by nature?

We now know that babies do start learning and responding to the world while they are still in the womb. Studies have shown us that babies actually start responding a lot earlier than you might expect when they are still in the womb.

One 2015 study, for example, found that the earliest a baby was recorded responding to sound in the womb was 16 weeks old , which is actually before the ears are even fully developed. The study also found that talking and touching the baby in the womb directly affected the fetus and that fetuses will kick more and move more as a result.

We now know that babies start learning about the world outside of the womb while they are still inside the womb. They respond to external stimuli, such as sounds, a mother's movement, light, and big siblings pressing on mom's belly.

Babies in utero can get startled, move around, urinate, and do a somersault. But it seems like it would be difficult to tell if a baby is actually crying in the womb due to the amniotic fluid and the fact that a baby in the womb might not have much to complain about.

What Happens When a Baby Cries?

Although you might think of crying as something that's pretty simple, there's actually a lot that goes into a cry. In order for a baby to accomplish crying, there has to be a lot of coordination between multiple systems in the body, including face muscles, airway regulation, and breathing. 

The main thing that needs to happen for a baby to cry is some sort of vocalization—aka sound. A 2004 study demonstrated that there is both a non-vocal and vocal component to crying. So when a baby starts learning how to cry in the womb, they are exhibiting the non-vocal side of a cry.

But what's most important to recognize with a baby crying is that a cry is an important developmental milestone. A baby being able to cry demonstrates that his or her brain and nervous system and body are working correctly to accomplish crying.

So a cry is much more than meets the eye. A cry actually represents that your baby is:

  • Recognizing some sort of outside stimuli happening
  • Processing that the stimuli is something potentially harmful or threatening and thus a negative stimulus
  • Reacting to the stimuli through a set of multiple pathways, from physically moving away to trying to vocalize to brain sensory awareness

Crying is literally a survival mechanism. It ensures the baby is able to signal to a caregiver that they need help, is in distress, or needs to be moved from a threatening situation. 

Crying Babies in the Womb

The short answer is that yes, babies do cry in the womb. However, scientists aren't sure to what exact degree because obviously, crying is not the same inside the uterus for the baby. A baby crying in-utero might look a little different than a baby crying outside of the womb, for example.

This same 2004 study was further developed and compared behaviors of a baby outside of the womb with behaviors of a baby inside of the womb. They identified 5 total states that a baby has:

  • Active awake
  • Active state
  • Crying
  • Quiet sleep
  • Quiet awake

Of those five states, only the first four were thought to also exist inside the womb. However, the study actually recorded what appeared to show a baby in the womb crying.

The researchers noted that the baby exhibited behaviors that correlated to what crying would look like outside of the womb:

  • The baby inhaled and opened its mouth while the tongue went down.
  • The baby then displayed three augmented breaths.
  • The third and last breath featured a pause on the inhale and an extended breath out with "settling."
  • Basically, what you would picture if a baby did a brief cry. 

The researchers also found evidence of crying behavior in at least 10 other babies as well. Interestingly enough, one of the babies actually exhibited the crying behavior right after labor started in the mother.

The study was groundbreaking because it provided the first video evidence of a baby "crying" in the womb. It also changed the way researchers thought about fetal behavior, activity, and development.

Researchers coined it a "neonatal cry."  The neonatal cry has a number of similarities to an ex-utero cry including similar

  • Body movements
  • Frowns
  • Grimaces
  • Inhale and exhale patters
  • Physical components

So what makes the two types of crying different? The main difference is that the baby isn't able to make a sound yet.

When Do Babies Start Crying in the Womb?

Doctors know that babies develop all the necessary prerequisites needed to cry by 20 weeks gestation. By this point, the fetus has coordinated breathing movements, can open its jaw, quiver its chin, and extend its tongue. It can also swallow.

Because babies are frequently born prematurely as well, doctors know that as early as 24 weeks, babies can produce crying sounds and respond to noise in their environment.

A Word From Verywell

Crying is an important developmental milestone for a baby and represents a coordinated effort between many systems in the body. A baby starts developing all of its senses, from touch, smell, hearing, and practicing movements even while inside the womb and has all the abilities to mimic crying around 20 weeks gestation.

Babies learn about the world that they will be inhabiting outside of the womb from their first world inside, and part of that involves reacting to what is going on around them. A baby may not able to cry in the same sense that he/she would cry outside of the womb, especially because the uterus is filled with amniotic fluid, which might slow down the tears just a little. But a baby in the womb is definitely reacting and processing stimuli, which includes crying behavior.

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Article Sources
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  5. Gingras JL, Mitchell EA, Grattan KJ, Stewart AW. Effects of maternal cigarette smoking and cocaine use in pregnancy on fetal response to vibroacoustic stimulation and habituation. Acta Paediatr. 2004;93(11):1479-85.  doi:10.1080/08035250410022134

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Additional Reading
  • Gingras, J., Mitchell, E., & Grattan, K. (2005). Fetal homologue of infant crying. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Fetal and Neonatal Edition90(5), F415–F418. http://doi.org/10.1136/adc.2004.062257
  • Marx, V. (2015, June 8). Fetal Behavioural Responses to Maternal Voice and Touch. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0129118