I guess after having six kids (Jenni here), I’ve become pretty fluent in the baby cry language. It is an actual language, you know. Don’t believe me? Keep reading, and be sure to click on the video link below. You will be blown away.
I recently had two encounters with infants that left me feel terribly frustrated. The first happened in Walmart one night. I was in the bread aisle and I heard a very distinct baby cry. I spun around and saw a young dad anxiously bouncing a newborn, hopeless trying to calm the baby whose cries were escalating.
There was no doubt in my mind what was happening. I’d heard that cry countless times, and I knew exactly what that little guy was saying: “Feed me!” He was hungry…very hungry!
It Seems I’ve Become “That” Lady
In my older age, it appears I’m becoming that annoying lady who tells young parents what to do. I hated those people when I was a young mom, and I vowed never to be one, but alas, I can’t seem to help myself.
“Your baby is very hungry,” I told the young dad, as gently as I could and with as much compassion as possible.
“I know,” he said. “His mom is the only one who can feed him, and she’s not done shopping.”
As I weaved in and out of the next few aisles, I could hear that baby’s cries reach fever pitch, and my blood pressure seemed to follow the intensity of his little pleas for help. I could picture him gulping down the milk (and lots of air with it) once his mom finally heeded his cries. I imagined what would follow once the air traveled into his GI tract. It would likely bring a different kind of cry, perhaps one with his knees pulled up to his chest.
Later that same week, Jody and I were working at a local Panera, and next to us was a tiny little baby. He was there with his young mommy, a grandma and a great-grandma. He was so very little that we knew he had been born prematurely. His mom said he was 4 weeks old, but he was smaller than any of my babies were the day they were born.
As the ladies passed him around and studied his precious little features, he began to cry. Although it was nothing like the hungry cry I’d heard in Walmart, I was just as familiar with this one. Jody recognized it too. He was uncomfortable, and most likely it was because he was cold.
We do live in south Florida, and it is hot this time of year, but indoors it’s pretty chilly. This little guy was wearing only a onesie — no hat, no sweater, no pants, no blanket. His arms and legs were a mottled purple, and we were picking up the message of his cry loud and clear. Her was saying, “Help! I’m cold.”
On today’s radio show, we’re going to talk about a great resource for parents called The Fussy Baby Network, and we’re also going to share with our listeners the fascinating Dunstan Baby Language, which explains the five basic cries of newborns.
Dunstan Baby Language
A number of years ago I watched a fascinating episode of The Oprah Winfrey show that introduced me to The Dunstan Baby Language, which is basically a hypothesis that there are universal infantile vocal reflexes in humans that cause five basic sounds, each with unique meaning, used by infants of all cultures before the language acquisition period.
The hypothesis was developed by a former mezzo-soprano opera singer from Australia. Her name is Priscilla Dunstan, and she says that she has a photographic memory for sounds and that this, combined with her years in the opera and her experience as a mother, allowed her to recognize certain sounds in the human voice.
She released a DVD set in 2006 called The Dunstan Baby Language. The two-disc set covers the five universal words of the language, methods of learning how to recognize the vocalizations and sounds, numerous examples of baby cries from around the world to “tune your ear,” and live demonstrations of newborn-mother groups experimenting with the language.
Between 0–3 months, infants make what Dunstan calls sound reflexes. She says that we all have reflexes, like sneezes, hiccups, and burps, that all have a recognizable pattern when sound is added to the reflex. There are other reflexes that all babies experience, and when sound is added to these, a distinct, preemptive “cry” will occur before the infant breaks into what Dunstan calls the hysterical cry.
Dunstan states that these preemptive cries can indicate what the baby needs (food, comfort, sleep, etc.). But if they’re not answered, she says, they escalate to the hysterical cry, which is much less discernable. As the infant matures past 3 months in vocalization, the sound reflexes are replaced with more elaborate babbling.
Although her theory has not undergone rigorous lab testing, we couldn’t find any real criticisms of it.
The Five Basic Newborn Cries
Neh – “I’m hungry”
Apparently, as a baby’s sucking reflex kicks in and the tongue is pushed to the roof of the mouth, the sound that comes out is a “neh” sound.
Owh – “I’m sleepy”
The “owh” sound is made in the reflex of a yawn.
Heh – “I’m uncomfortable”
Although the “heh” sounds similar to “neh,” if you listen carefully, you’ll catch it’s distinctive “h” sound at the beginning. This particular sound lets you know that the baby is uncomfortable – cold, itchy, needs a new diaper, needs a new position, etc.
Eair – “My lower tummy hurts”
The “eair” sound is a deeper sound that comes from the abdomen. There is often a kind of grunting associated with it, and although Dustan attributes this to lower gas pain, those of us who have used Elimination Communication with our babies, also recognize it as the “I have to poop” cry!
This sound is often accompanied by a newborn pulling his knees up or pushing down and out with his legs. The baby’s body, not only his face, will look uncomfortable.
Eh – “I need to burp”
This is similar to “neh” and “heh,” but remember that you are listening for those beginning sounds, not the ending sounds. When you hear, “Eh, ehhhhh” your newborn is telling you, “Burp me, please.”
It’s hard to communicate these sounds in writing, but we’ve included this clip from The Oprah Show, and it gives examples of babies making each sound. Check it out!