Caring for a baby, especially during the first three months, is a huge challenge. They can’t speak or move about to tell us what they want or need, so many a frustrating day (or night) is spent trying to understand what each of their expressions mean.
Not understanding what infants need makes it more difficult for parents and caregivers to provide for these babies.
As any parent can attest, it becomes a huge struggle to make sense of what your baby wants during their first three months. Each cry can elicit a panic among both parents, each leaving them with only a vague idea of what needs to be addressed.
Meet Priscilla Dunstan
Fortunately, there is hope for parents handling very young babies. Priscilla Dunstan is an Australian former mezzo-soprano and a mother herself. She has developed her own theory about how babies have developed sounds to express certain needs or wants.
The theory is that across cultures and linguistic groups there are five sounds, each with a meaning, that are used by infants before they learn to make babbling sounds that transition eventually into speech.
On an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2006, Dunstan explained that from 0-3 months, all infants produce sound reflexes, which accompany the various reflexes such as sneezes, hiccups and burps. They usually start out with a pre-emptive ”cry” which can then escalate to a hysterical cry if it isn’t attended to right away.
Each of these cries can mean a particular need to be attended to, such as food, comfort or sleep. These can be broken down into five basic cries that can be subtly distinguished if one pays careful attention to the sounds.
The five cries
The first is the “Neh” (I am hungry) sound, which means that it’s feeding. An infant uses the sound reflex “Neh” to communicate its hunger. The sound is produced when the sucking reflex is triggered, and the tongue is pushed up on the roof of the mouth. Pay attention to the ‘N’ sound at the start of the cry, which will tell you what to do.
Next, we have the “Owh” (I’m sleepy) sound. An infant uses the sound reflex “Owh” to communicate that they are tired. The sound is produced much like an audible yawn and the mouth forms an oval shape similar to a yawn.
After this, we have the “Heh” (I’m uncomfortable) sound. An infant uses the sound reflex “Heh” to communicate stress, discomfort, or perhaps that it needs a fresh diaper. The sound is produced by a response to a skin reflex, such as feeling sweat or itchiness in the bum. As it sounds very similar to the “Neh” sound, take note of the “H” sound at the very beginning.
There’s also the “Eairh” (I have gas/am pooping) sound. An infant uses this sound reflex to communicate they have flatulence or an upset stomach. The sound is produced when trapped air from a belch is unable to exit via the mouth and travels to the stomach, where the muscles of the intestines tighten to force the air bubble out. Often, this sound will indicate that a bowel movement is in progress, and the infant will bend its knees, bringing the legs toward the torso. This leg movement assists in the ongoing process.
Finally, there’s the “Eh” (I need to be burped) sound. Since it can’t get to an upright position without help, an infant uses the sound reflex “Eh” to communicate that it needs to be burped. The sound is produced when a large bubble of trapped air is caught in the chest (usually after feeding), and the reflex is trying to release this out of the mouth. Since it sounds like the end of the “Neh” and “Heh” sounds, the lack of the “H” or “N” sounds are key to recognizing this.
Being more patient
Since some of the sounds can be hard to distinguish, it takes a bit of practice to be able to tell them apart. A baby will usually give a limited time to react and decipher their cry before it gets to the hysterical level.
The key to mastering all these cries is for the caregiver to pay more attention to the baby. It’s understandably difficult to comprehend what each cry means at first, which is why it’s better to spend more time with the infant. Getting more comfortable with each other will help both the child and the parent communicate with one another.
As with anything in parenting, the key to success is plenty of patience and being willing to learn more about the newest member of the family. The truth is that an infant is a stranger that you’re just getting to know and every opportunity to understand them better can help improve your ability to communicate with them and help meet their needs.
You can learn more about Dunstan Baby Language at https://www.dunstanbaby.com. The site includes online video lessons showing you how to train your ears for the key sounds, as well as a DVD version available in multiple languages that’s shipped worldwide.