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Phantom Crying

Having a baby changes your brain – as in it literally changes the physical architecture of your brain. Specifically, the areas of the brain that help you understand the thoughts & intentions of others.

One study found that mothers listening to a baby’s crying had greater neural activation in the emotional processing regions of their brain when compared with women who didn’t have children.

The researchers described it like this: a mother’s brain experiences a baby’s cry as though an emergency beacon has been set off. Our brains process it as a hugely important signal, one that requires an immediate response.

This same pattern was found for mothers all over the world. It appears that in mothers’ brains, there’s an inbuilt system to protect babies when they’re at their most vulnerable. But sometimes a parent’s brain gets confused & hears crying even when it’s not there. This is known as “phantom crying”.

Having ‘phantom’ experiences is not uncommon. A large percent of amputee patients report having phantom pain where their missing limb would have been. Ever felt your phone vibrating in your pocket when it’s not (phantom vibration syndrome)?

Experiencing phantom crying likely due to a combination of a brain that’s wired to listen for crying & a highly stimulated/stressed brain. I mean, sleep deprivation is the definition of stress right?

Importantly, it’s exacerbated by situations in which our hearing is restricted, like in the shower or when vacuuming. Anxiety plays a part also, research has shown that experiencing phantom crying is associated with (although not indicative of) postnatal anxiety & depression.


📺 Make use of baby monitors!

Find small moments to focus on the moment & be mindful (reduced stress can help minimise phantom crying).

🧘‍ Try to relax. It’s okay, you’re not crazy, this is just a weird way that your brain is trying to help you keep your baby safe.

Do you experience phantom crying? Let us know in the comments.

References: Froemke 2018; Rosenberger 2016; Hanyu-Deutmeyer et al 2020; Bornstein et al 2017


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