Your Baby Is Fast Asleep – So Why Can You Hear Them Crying?

The phantom cry is a pretty jarring phenomenon. Here's why it happens.
Predrag Popovski via Getty Images

In the first weeks after giving birth to my daughter, I thought I was losing it – mostly because every time I’d have a shower, I would hear her cry.

I’d dash out of the shower and rush into our bedroom – traipsing shampoo and wet footprints across the carpet – and find our baby in her bedside crib, silent as a mouse, her tiny chest rising and falling, her eyes clamped shut.

I experienced this for months and months. I don’t recall exactly when it stopped, but it was probably about the 3-4 months mark.

And it turns out I’m definitely not alone in hearing my baby’s phantom cries – particularly while in the shower. It’s very much A Thing.

So why do we hear these phantom cries?

Mothers have reported hearing phantom cries in the shower, but also throughout the night and while their baby is napping. You could be in another room doing the ironing and swear you hear them cry, only to find them fast asleep in their Moses basket.

Like many things involving women – and indeed, mothers – it’s not particularly well-researched, but doctors insist it’s a pretty normal occurrence that happens after having a baby.

Dr Kiran Rahim, a paediatric doctor, tells HuffPost UK: “Phantom crying is a fairly common phenomenon experienced by most mothers. Whilst we don’t fully understand it, we do know that having a baby changes the brain cells and the neural connections in a mother’s brain.”

And this probably has a lot to do with why we’re hearing sounds that aren’t there all of a sudden.

As Megan Gray, an ob-gyn with Orlando Health Physician Associates, told Popsugar: “It most likely has to do with a highly stimulated maternal brain that is being wired to be cued by baby’s cries, leading to a heightened awareness to sound.”

Similar changes occur in dads’ brains as well, but likely on a lesser scale, according to Robert Froemke, associate professor at New York University Langone.

On top of that, our brains are adapting to some pretty big life changes. We’re no longer sleeping properly, we’re on high alert trying to keep a baby alive, our routines and lifestyle choices (exercise, eating a healthy diet, self-care) have been completely thrown out of the window.

“In those first few months of having a new baby, some of these connections in the brain can get a bit criss-crossed so that you hear crying, when in fact, your baby is asleep,” says Dr Rahim.

“Most parents are in a ‘permanent’ state of stress in the early days which wears the body down and places parents in a ‘hyper alert’ state, perpetually ready to respond to even the slightest stress.”

Phantom crying is also – in the most unsurprising news ever – linked to sleep deprivation and postnatal mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, according to Dr Rahim.

“Up to one in five women develop postnatal mental health problems, so phantom crying is more common than we might think,” she says.

The good news is that generally it settles after three to six months, as parents ease into their new normal.

But if you’re experiencing a lot of phantom crying, it might be worth making some changes. For instance, can you get extra help with the night feeds and nappy changes so you can get some more sleep?

And if phantom cries are affecting your day-to-day life, it’s well worth speaking to a professional – whether that’s a midwife, GP or therapist – who can offer further support.