There’s nothing like hearing that first cry after your baby is born to reassure you that everything is okay. But have you ever wondered why babies cry at birth? Is it because they’re unhappy that they had to leave the warm womb to face the cold cruel world? Turns out, the answer is truly miraculous.
That first cry can be music to a new mommy’s ears. It signifies that the baby’s lungs have begun functioning outside of the womb, which is integral to a baby’s survival. Remember, a baby “breathes” in utero via its mother's placenta. “When a baby is in utero, amniotic fluid fills the air sacs within the lungs,” Dr. Ana Machado, a pediatrician, explains to Romper. “As the baby is being born and squeezes its way through the vaginal canal, pressure on the chest wall compresses it to literally squeeze the fluid out of the lungs.” Think of a baby’s lungs as being a sponge full of water — once the baby is born, all of that water now has to be replaced by air.
And that’s why a baby’s first cry is so critical. Says Dr. Machado: “It’s the first time that the lungs are actually being used to breathe air.” Although the first breath might be a short one, the exhalation of that breath (which is the baby’s first cry) tends to be longer, “because it’s the pressure forcing the air sacs open and getting that fluid out,” says Dr. Machado.
Your baby might not let out just one loud “wahhh” but several cries, depending on how much fluid he needs to expel from his lungs. “Your baby will cry as long as he needs to in order to start breathing normally,” says Dr. Machado. But if you thought that your baby cried at birth because he was upset that he had to leave his wonderful life inside the womb, think again. “Babies don’t cry initially because they’re complaining,” says Dr. Machado. “Within 5-10 minutes after birth, persistent crying could be a breathing issue, or sometimes, they are just cold.” Which is why there's always an infant incubator or radiant warming machine in delivery rooms, as a study in the journal Early Human Development explained. And once they’re all cleaned up, babies are also swaddled after birth to help prevent body heat loss — and keep them calm, too, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
So how much crying can a mom expect from her newborn? “Ideally, you want to hear a couple of good cries,” says Dr. Machado. “Once they’ve opened up their lungs and they’re being soothed and warmed, then they’ll stop crying.” For the most part, a healthy newborn taking his first breaths will cry for about a minute or less. And your baby’s cries will be a part of his overall Apgar score (the R in Apgar is for “respiration”), reported Kids Health. The Apgar test is conducted one minute after birth, and then again 5 minutes later.
Although a newborn’s cries are what everyone is clamoring for in the delivery room, sometimes an OB might momentarily delay a baby’s first cry. If a baby passes meconium (i.e. baby poop) during labor or delivery, the labor and delivery team will work to clean the baby first before she takes her first breath so that she doesn’t accidentally inhale it. Breathing in poop can cause MAS (meconium aspiration syndrome), which can potentially lead to respiratory issues or even pneumonia, Parents reported. If there’s a risk that the baby has breathed in meconium —and she’s not very active— a doctor might use an endotracheal tube that’s inserted into the baby’s windpipe via her mouth or nose to suction out the poop, Kids Health stated. Then, they’ll stimulate the baby to get her to cry.
There’s a big difference from when your baby is delivered to when she takes her first cry. “When they’re born, they’re lifeless and purple,” says Dr. Machado. “And when they make that first cry, it’s like magic. They turn into a baby.” Suddenly, the baby goes from being purple to pink, and they start moving as well, even opening their eyes to see the world for the first time.
“Crying is the key to life,” says Dr. Machado. “It really is a miracle.” Now tell yourself that at 3:00 a.m. when your little miracle is, you know, full of life.