Dear Camren,

I was a very quiet kitten. I only cried when I needed something. But some kittens in my litter cried all the time.

I talked about this with my friend Masha Gartstein. She’s a psychology professor at Washington State University. She studies how babies develop different temperaments. That’s how you relate to the world around you in a way that’s unique and fairly consistent.

Gartstein told me babies cry because they’re helpless. They need a way to signal that they need something.

“Babies are born into this world needing a lot of assistance—and without a lot of communication tools,” she said. “Crying is a very powerful communication tool.”

Boy, is it. A baby’s wail can be 120 decibels—about the same loudness as a siren. That’s loud enough to damage your hearing if it goes on long enough. So, it makes sense that people jump up and help the baby to stop the noise.

The way humans develop is one reason babies cry a lot. Some animals are born ready to go. Think about giraffes. They can walk when they’re just one hour old. But humans are born underdeveloped. It takes months for a baby to hold up its own head or focus its eyes on an object.

Gartstein told me many babies cry a lot during that early time. After a few months, their brains and nervous systems become more mature. Many babies cry less after that. Plus, their caregivers get better at figuring out what their cries mean. Then, they can help faster.

“A lot of this reactivity is biological,” Gartstein said. “It’s a function of the central nervous system, genetics and maturation. But a parent can help a child cope. We know that quality caregiving is related to social and emotional development, temperament and brain activity. So, parents can help shape how things go.”

That means when grownups respond to a crying baby, the baby learns to calm down.


There are individual differences in how much a baby cries—and what things make a baby cry. Some babies cry more easily. Some babies like new things or people. Some babies cry when they experience new things and meet new people. Some crying babies are easy to distract. Some seem like they won’t stop crying no matter what you do.

A smiling baby wearing a green EEG cap sits in a high chair with its finger in its mouth.
Babies in Gartstein’s lab wear special caps that measure their brain activity while they play games.


Gartstein says your temperament as a baby will be with you in some way through your later life. A fearful baby may grow up to be more cautious. A baby who likes new things may grow up to be adventurous. A baby who’s upset by lots of noise or light may feel the same way as a grown up. It’s just one part of what makes you you.

It makes you wonder if my calm temperament as a kitten is why I’m such a cool cat now.


Dr. Universe