Decode Baby Cries

By Kathryn Sucich

Crying Baby: Imagine being able to decode your baby’s sounds...What if babies really did come with an instruction manual – one that could help you during those 3 a.m. crying bouts?

Turn to the troubleshooting page and it might say, “Problem: baby crying uncontrollably, has a distinct ‘h’ sound in the cry. Diagnosis: dirty diaper.”

Imagine being able to decode your baby’s sounds.

Priscilla Dunstan, an Australian mom who says she has a rare photographic memory for sound, claims she has unlocked the secret language of babies and can provide moms and dads with a guide to their babies’ cries. She’s selling DVDs on that claim to teach parents how to distinguish among a baby’s cries. And, of course, she’s making the talk-show circuit, including appearances on Oprah that have new parents intrigued.

Dunstan isn’t the first to try to “decode” babies. There have been other books and products created through the years – and yet many parents still survive the first few months with little more than a thermometer, clean diapers and the advice of experienced friends.

According to Dunstan, every baby age 0-3 months makes five distinct sounds to communicate its needs. When parents are able to identify the sounds, they can more quickly respond to their babies’ needs, resulting in happier babies and parents.

The five sounds in the Dunstan Baby Language are:

• “Neh” – meaning, “I’m hungry”
• “Owh” – meaning, “I’m tired”
• “Heh” – meaning, “I’m uncomfortable”
• “Eairh” – meaning, “I have lower gas”
• “Eh” – meaning, “I need to burp”

Dunstan says it’s normal for babies to not always use every word, but they’ll use the words that indicate their most pressing needs – for example, an overly gassy baby might use the “eairh” and “eh” words most often.

According to Dunstan’s research, once parents learned the sounds in the Dunstan Baby Language, 70 percent reported their baby settled faster, 50 percent of mothers say they bonded better with their babies and experienced a better feeding and 50 percent say they got more sleep.

Sounds great on paper, but does the “language” really work?

Kristen Perfetuo,  Marshfield, Massachusetts mom to baby Ella, says it seems accurate. When Ella had her 2-month-old shots recently and was uncomfortable, Perfetuo says, “I really heard that ‘heh’ sound!”

The “eairh” sound (meaning the baby has lower gas) was also right on, Perfetuo says. But some of the sounds were hard to separate, such as “heh” and “eh,” and Perfetuo says that Ella makes many sounds that don’t correlate to the sounds in the Dunstan Baby Language.

Mary Zentis, a staff nurse in the maternity ward at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA, tested the Dunstan Baby Language out on the babies in the nursery.

Her reaction? “Babies make a lot more sounds than that!”

The concept is interesting, Zentis says, but some of the sounds are hard to identify, even for someone who is experienced with babies. “You can have a sense of knowing what a baby is doing without studying its sounds,” she says.

Zentis also expresses concern that parents might use the Dunstan Baby Language to scientifically analyze their babies rather than trying to properly bond with and comfort their newborns.

Perfetuo agrees. She already knows Ella’s routine and her needs based on how the baby is acting, not necessarily on the sounds she’s making.

Whether through studying language or through spending time bonding with baby, everyone agrees that the more quickly a parent figures out what baby is trying to say, the happier everyone will be.

“Crying is a less organized form of communication,” says Zentis. “When a baby is crying, you’ve already missed what it’s trying to say.”


Originally published in B.A.B.Y., a publication of The Boston Parents’ paper.