New mom wakes from coma after hearing her baby cry

Sometimes crying, not laughter, is the best medicine.

At least that was the case for North Carolina woman Shelly Cawley, who had gone into a coma during an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter Rylan. During the surgery, for which Cawley had to be put under anesthesia, a blood clot broke loose and traveled to her brain. After the surgery, Cawley didn’t wake up, and, according to her doctors, she was fading fast. There was fluid in her lungs, decreasing blood pressure and plummeting oxygen levels.

More: What to expect in an emergency C-section

The 23-year-old new mother had been in the coma for a week, and her hospital care team at Carolinas Medical Center had run out of ideas to bring her back to consciousness. But then, the nursing staff suggested something a little off the medical beaten path: Could hearing her baby’s cry get Cawley to wake up again? They brought Rylan in for some skin-to-skin contact, but the thriving baby stayed contentedly quiet. So they poked, prodded and finally pinched her to get a cry out of her… and that’s when Cawley started to come around.

More: Why your baby is crying and what you can do about it

The human brain is a remarkably complex organ, with incredibly precise demands in terms of oxygen levels and chemical needs. But sometimes the only thing that can cut through all those layers of complexity is something as simple as a baby’s cry for its mother. Several studies have shown the unique effects that a crying infant has on its mother’s brain — possibly thanks to the hormone oxytocin, which is produced by the body during both childbirth and breastfeeding and which is involved in maternal bonding. Oxytocin might actually change the way the auditory centers in the brain work — sort of like a shot of espresso that specifically targets the nerve cells that help you tune in to the sound of an upset baby. Fathers also produce oxytocin to bond with their children, by the way, so this is not a valid excuse for dads to claim they just never hear their baby crying in the middle of the night the way that Mom does.

More: Husbands don’t hear crying babies

Even people who aren’t parents have an immediate subconscious reaction to a crying infant in a way that mimics the “fight or flight” response (tip: please do not fight a baby, even a crying one). This kind of instinct seems to be hard-wired into our brains at a deep level — a level as deep as the bottom of a coma, it appears, judging by the way Shelly Cawley’s story turned out.


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