5 Ways Babies Are Manipulative Little Jerks
People who think leaving a brand new human to cry itself to sleep is good parenting are fond of accusing babies of being manipulative, and to be clear, they’re wrong. Someone who hasn’t even learned to control their own bowels isn’t capable of Machiavellian scheming, and denying a child attention for no reason is a good way to get an adult who fishes for retweets by asking people to name a movie scene with bananas in it.
But babies have evolved, through no fault of their own, to pull your strings like stinky little puppet masters. In fact, the stink is part of it.
It Begins in the Womb
A pregnant person’s body often feels like a battlefield, and that’s more accurate than they probably realize. On a cellular level, the fetus and its host are at war, the former encouraging the latter’s body to surrender as many resources as possible and the latter fighting back, even as they paint the nursery. During this violent negotiation, some of the fetal cells escape through the placenta and take up residence all over the body like adorable little spies.
That might not sound so bad, but what it means is that if you’ve ever given birth, at least a few of your cells are not really yours. Decades later, it’s possible for, say, a woman who gave birth to a boy to have male DNA in her blood. What’s more, these cells tend to latch onto areas that “play a role in transferring resources to the fetus,” including “the brain, where they may influence neural circuitry and maternal attachment to the child.” Essentially, your baby can rewire your brain to make you love them, no matter how many times they shit on you.
Their Smiles Are Fake
Only the Hitlerest of monsters can remain unswayed by the smile of a baby, but if that baby is fresher than about a month, their smile is probably meaningless. It’s likely a “reflexive” smile, i.e., totally fake, because newborn babies simply don’t have the emotional capacity to experience happiness. They’re cold little goth-bots who can’t feel anything beyond “I’m not perfectly comfortable for one of myriad reasons I can’t tell you about. Have fun with that!” They’re definitely not smiling at you. They can’t even see you.
That doesn’t mean newborns never smile in response to external stimulation, as we believed until just recently. Sometimes, they smile because something feels good, from a stroked cheek to a nice smell to a huge fart, but they also smile in their sleep, so who knows what’s going on in their stupid little heads? What’s important is that being smiled at lights up adults’ brains like the Vegas strip, particularly the reward centers, reinforcing the value of caring for babies and making them happy. Or gassy. You know, whichever.
So Are Their Tears
Again, babies don’t cry just to piss you off. It’s because they’re wet or hungry or cold or hot or sleepy or bored or just scared and confused by this terrible world they’ve been unwillingly thrust into. We can see why you might think so, though, because if you’re brave enough to get close enough to a screaming newborn, you’ll see they’re not actually crying tears. They’re pulling a Real Housewives on you.
Well, not exactly. They’re crying as genuinely as they can, it’s just that, in many ways, babies don’t come out fully baked. If they stayed in until all their little parts came together, their heads would be too big for even the mightiest epidural to let them pass. One of the developments sacrificed by Mother Nature is the tear ducts, which don’t fully form until babies are about three or four weeks old. This is also why infants don’t sweat, so you’re on your own to figure out whether they’re too hot, probably by their tearless cries.
Their Cries Are a Subconscious Trigger
Regardless of their level of wetness, a baby’s cry turns us all into Manchurian candidates ready to commit unspeakable violence, especially on airplanes. That’s not us being assholes — our brains react uniquely to the sound of a crying baby. It’s much harder to ignore than other annoying noises, probably because if we ignore babies, we go extinct.
But a baby’s cry also triggers specific parts of the brain not activated by other sounds. It cuts straight to the areas that control behaviors like the fight-or-flight response, explaining why it always compels you to either flee or punch someone, which is helpful when it’s because the baby is being attacked by a tiger but not so much by cabin pressure. It also disrupts your ability to concentrate, allowing you to more effectively switch your attention between the baby and whatever else you’ve got going on. You’re welcome!
Their Smell Gets You High
If you only associate infants with bad smells, that’s understandable, but it means you’ve never dug your nose into the skull of one fresh from the oven. It smells kind of like a combination of warm laundry and perfectly seasoned steak. We’re not quite sure what produces the smell, which goes away within a few weeks, but we think it might be the leftover odor of the waxy substance that makes them look so weird when they first slide out. At least it’s good for something.
Whatever it is, it turns us into straight-up baby-huffing fiends. A look at the brains of people inhaling that new baby scent shows a surge of dopamine comparable to eating delicious food (though that might just be the steak thing) or even taking drugs. The effect was strongest in mothers, but everybody can get a quick high from a discreet nog sniff, probably to incentivize parents to cuddle and otherwise care for babies. Does that mean you should try weaning yourself off meth by smelling a bunch of strangers’ babies’ heads? No, but it can’t hurt, so give it a shot. They probably won’t mind.