Newborn pain cries and vagal tone: parallel changes in response to circumcision

Child Dev. 1988 Apr;59(2):495-505.


Clinical studies have demonstrated that the cries of chronically stressed, medically compromised infants are characteristically higher and more variable in pitch than those of healthy infants. Other studies have indicated that the vagal tone of chronically stressed infants is significantly reduced in comparison to that of normal infants. A neural model of cry production has been proposed which suggests that decreased vagal tone among infants at risk may, in fact, be related to these increases in cry pitch. Using routine, unanesthetized circumcision as a model of stress, we were able to examine the relation between cry acoustics and vagal tone in normal, healthy newborns undergoing an acutely stressful event. Vocalizations, heart, and respiratory waveforms were continuously recorded from 49 (32 experimental; 17 control) 1-2-day-old, full-term infants during preoperative, surgical, and postoperative periods. Vagal tone, as measured by the amplitude of respiratory sinus arrhythmia extracted from heart period data, was significantly reduced during the severe stress of circumcision, and these reductions were paralleled by significant increases in the pitch of the infants' cries. In addition, individual differences in vagal tone measured prior to circumcision surgery were predictive of physiological and acoustic reactivity to subsequent stress. These results emphasize the potential role of vagal control of the autonomic nervous system during stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustics
  • Circumcision, Male*
  • Crying / physiology*
  • Heart / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn / physiology*
  • Male
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*