• Hailee Schollaardt

The Secret Baby Language!


Did you know that language development begins before birth!! Near the end of a woman’s pregnancy a fetus begins to hear sounds and speech from the mother and other people near by. When your little one blesses you with their appearance they have the ability to express feelings and reactions by using a preverbal language of nine natural signals. These signals can be expressed either through facial expressions, sounds, and body language.

The nine natural signals that all infants are born with are:

  • Interest

  • Enjoyment

  • Surprise

  • Distress

  • Anger

  • Fear

  • Shame

  • Disgust

  • Dissmell

Although not on the list from this study, hunger is also a natural feeling that infants have right from birth.

So, how does this have anything to do with sleep?? Directly speaking, these signals don’t determine anything to do with sleep but the way in which infants communicate these signals often get misinterpreted which can lead to sleep disturbances when your child is older! If we respond the same way to each cry in the early months it can lead to habits in the later months.

Distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, dissmell, hunger, tiredness, frustration, pain, and discomfort have one thing in common….they are all often expressed through crying. A baby has very few ways to communicate to adults and so more often than not any sort of negative emotions or feelings are expressed through crying.

Priscilla Dunstan and her research team over many years have produced what is known as the “Dunstan Classification of Infant Cries.” After studying and researching infant cries they have established that there are 5 types of cries that babies use to communicate their needs. These cries, or sounds that babies make before they are full out crying or screaming, are universal across all cultures and can help parents meet their infants needs therefore reducing stress in the home and promoting a securely attached child.

Dunstan Baby Language

  • “Neh” means “I’m Hungry” – If your baby is making “neh” or “nah” sounds it most likely means that they are hungry. If you listen the “n” sound will be the giveaway that it is hunger versus other needs. This sound is based on the sucking reflex which naturally produces a “neh” sound.

  • “Owh” means “I’m tired” – when yawning your mouth makes a natural oval shape and so the sound that will come out when fussing will sound like a “owh”

  • “Eh” means “Burp me please” – When your baby needs to burp the muscles in their chest tighten naturally to help release gasses. This triggers an “eh-eh-eh-eh” sound.

  • “Eairh” means “I’m gassy” or lower wind pain – This sound almost sounds like “eeeerrrhhhh” or “air” which is a giveaway that there is air they need to bass. This sound is caused by the abdomen constricting to help pass the air bubbles. This often comes after the “eh” sound if the baby does not burp.

  • “Heh” means “Physical discomfort” – This one is hard because discomfort could be caused by many things and so checking for temperature, soiled diaper, itchy clothing tag, or anything else that may be causing discomfort is what is needed.

Although when your new baby comes home every cry often sounds the same most caregivers get pretty good at determining different needs. The key to tuning in with the Dunstan language is to listen to those pre-crys when they are fussing at the beginning before the get really upset.

The researchers who studied these sounds found that caregivers who could communicate with their child by responding appropriately to their cries sleep longer and better! When I had first read this statement I was intrigued as to why tuning into cries would help me sleep longer and better. The fact is, many caregivers get stuck in the habit of always feeding their baby when they cry. You may finish feeding them at 1:00 p.m. and then at 1:30 they get fussy and so you feed them again because it “calms” them versus trying to assess their other needs quickly first to see if something else may be bothering them. This is how feeding associations are often created and confused with soothing techniques.

By tuning into those cries and responding to your babies needs promptly and appropriately you can be sure that all their needs are being met in a healthy way. This will allow for them to learn healthy routines throughout their day as they get older and in the long run can help to improve sleep!!

Don’t worry If it all sounds the same at first…it will come J Every baby is different and so we as parents are always learning! Give it a couple weeks of really focusing in on those fussy noises before the crying begins and see if you begin to notice the different sounds!

Here is a video (sorry if your not an Oprah fan) with Priscilla Dunstan and examples of the sounds outlined above!!

Below is information from The Dunstan Baby Language (DBL) research project showing outcomes:

Summary of research findings conducted by commercial research organisation, The Leading Edge, which conducted independent research in Australia, UK & USA in 2006 & 2007 with a combined sample size of 400 mothers & their babies:

  • 90% of all mothers reported that DBL is valuable and would recommend it to other mothers

  • 100% of first time mothers reported it was valuable and would recommend it to other mothers

  • Significant increases in maternal self esteem and significant reductions in parental stress

  • Almost 70% of test mums reported their infant settled faster after using DBL

  • Almost 70% felt more confident as a mother and more relaxed and in control

  • Over 50% reported more unbroken sleep for themselves and their baby.

  • 50% felt more bonded to their baby

  • 50% believe their baby is feeding better

  • DBL not only helps mothers, but also benefited 2 out of 3 fathers, resulting in reduced levels of stress, greater paternal involvement in the baby’s care, and more positive marital relationships


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