It’s the middle of the night, and Yliana Thoreson hears her one-year-old son crying in his bedroom. A mother to a three-year-old as well, she’s more than familiar with the drill. But this time, when Thoreson checks on her child, she sees that the baby is quietly and peacefully sleeping. The crying was all in her head.
The phenomenon is called “phantom baby crying.” A parent thinks they hear their child crying, but the child isn’t. Experts have some ideas about why this may be happening, but first and foremost want to address parents’ most salient fear: that they’re losing their minds. They’re not.
Having a phantom experience of the non-ghostly variety is not all that unusual. A large percent of amputee patients report having phantom pain where their missing limb would have been. Enough people have reported feeling a phone vibrating in their pocket when there wasn’t one that the phenomenon has been given a name (phantom vibration syndrome), and some breastfeeding mothers say they’ve felt the sensation of milk leaking from their breasts when it isn’t.
Parents are going through a lot in those early days; sleep deprivation and being around sometimes nearly-constant baby crying can take a toll in ways that aren’t largely publicized or mentioned in parenting books.
Thoreson recently had another phantom baby crying experience with her older child as well. “I had just changed Thomas, put him back to bed, and come downstairs when I could swear I heard him crying out again,” she said. “I could see he was asleep in the monitor. I even went up to his room, and it was quiet, but I could still hear the sound in my head even as I was standing outside his door.”
While this eerie anomaly hasn’t been exclusively researched, experts don’t think hearing non-existent sounds from your baby is cause for concern. Parents are going through a lot in those early days; sleep deprivation and being around sometimes nearly-constant baby crying can take a toll in ways that aren’t largely publicized or mentioned in parenting books.
Physical changes that happen to new mothers in those early days of parenthood (hair loss, additional weight, stretch marks, and leaking breasts, to name a few) are a given. But there are neurological changes, too — one of them being how mothers adapt to hearing and responding to infant cries. Similar changes occur in fathers’ brains too, but likely on a lesser scale, says Robert Froemke, associate professor at New York University Langone, focuses on brain function. Specifically, Froemke explores how the auditory part of the cerebral cortex can change in new mice parents. And while studies on mice do not equate to research in humans, it can give us an idea of what could be happening in human brains.
There is scientific evidence that infants’ and children’s crying increases sympathetic nervous system (SNS) arousal. For many parents, this means instantly being awake, palms sweating and heart pounding the moment they hear their baby crying. “One of the classic findings in stress research — initially done by endocrinologist Hans Selye — is that prolonged SNS arousal takes a toll on the body, putting stress on the heart and weakening immune system responses,” says Randolph Cornelius, a professor of psychological science at Vassar College. “Prolonged SNS arousal wears the body down, essentially, but also puts a person in a permanent state of vigilance, which is wearying. So, prolonged infant crying does take a real toll on a person.”
These changes that happen in a new parent's brain help them adapt to parenthood; that is, phantom baby cries could occur as a result of the brain trying to sharpen a new parent’s intuition, but having a brief lapse, or spasm, in the process.
That heightened state of vigilance gives way to another theory about phantom baby cries: Perhaps the baby did make a sound — however faint and brief — and the parent was able to hear or sense it on some level. “There are a lot of anecdotal stories of sleeping mothers hearing their distant baby’s actual cries in the middle of the night, even though the father doesn’t,” says Robert Liu, an Atlanta-based neuroscientist. “There are also reports of new mothers in hospital wards waking to their baby crying in a nursery down the hall. It may be that this phenomenon reflects changes in the auditory neurons that lowers the threshold for responding.” Essentially, this means that a parent’s brain may change to make them capable of responding to even the softest of sounds.
According to Froemke’s research, these changes that happen in a new parent's brain help them adapt to parenthood; that is, phantom baby cries could occur as a result of the brain trying to sharpen a new parent’s intuition, but having a brief lapse, or spasm, in the process. It would be an understandable “oops”; the brain is working overtime, and with very little sleep. Imagine having a small leg-twitch at night — it’s kind of like the brain is making a harmless mistake. “Like a leg twitch that doesn’t turn into a full-blown seizure, biology is good at self-correcting. Phantom baby cries may occur in the same way,” he says.
Some parents say they are more likely to hear phantom baby cries when they’re already in a fairly noisy space — like when they’re taking a shower or vacuuming. This also may be a result of a parent’s changed auditory system, and another example of the brain essentially making a mistake. Liu says, “It is possible that if the collection of neurons that might normally get activated by infant cries instead get activated by other sounds, it may create an impression of hearing a baby cry, perhaps in the presence of noise.”
Bottom line: If you’ve experienced this, you’re not likely experiencing anything more than a little stress. “Being a parent, by definition, means you have a level of parental anxiety,” says Froemke. “The times I’ve thought I’ve heard my son cry, and gone to check on him, I think that’s a normal kind of parental experience. I care enough about my kid that if I hear something that could have been him, I’m going to rush into his room and make sure he’s cool, [and that] everything’s fine.”