Understanding baby communication & language

Nadine Richardson
Updated on Jun 14, 2024 · 3 mins read

One of our main jobs as a parent is to tend to our baby’s needs. Human mammals are highly co-dependent for a very long time. Unlike other mammals, such as dogs, horses or even whales and dolphins, etc., we are not born capable of moving around immediately. We do not have the same degree of independence and physical awareness and are unable to regulate our emotions or settle our nervous systems for a very long time. And speech, in particular, does not develop until around 18 months.

How do babies communicate?

As a new parent we discover instinctively that we want to settle and meet the needs of our babies in order to keep them happy – and the whole household a lot calmer. In part through intuition and in part through trial and error, we discover what our babies are communicating to us through their body movements, whimpers and varied crying sounds.

Before you have a baby you might think that all crying sounds the same. However, this is not the case! A baby generally cries because they are communicating a primary need for hunger and/or comfort, but there are variations within those needs.

The Dunstan Baby Language (founded in Australia) can teach you to hear exactly what your baby is communicating. It allows you to interpret your infant’s sounds and cries and respond to their needs quickly and effectively, which can almost seem miraculous at times.

Priscilla Dunstan proposes that every newborn (from birth to 3 months old) communicates 5 distinct sounds that signal hunger, tiredness, need to burp, lower wind/gas or discomfort (hot/cold). This is regardless of the language their parents speak and is not a learned language. From my experience of supporting thousands of new families, it is not as crazy as it sounds.

The ‘words’ that form the basis of what is called Dunstan Baby Language are arising from physiology, or a baby’s physical response called a ‘reflex’.  For example, when a baby is hungry they will start to create a sucking reflex movement which brings the tongue forward, and as a sound is added to that reflex, the ‘word’ for hunger is produced, ‘NEH’.

It helps to pay attention because usually, these utterings occur just before actual crying fully develops. The sooner the ‘word’ for hunger is identified the sooner a parent can respond by feeding… which of course results in less crying and less discomfort for the baby – and for us as parents.

Other sounds we can hear at the beginning of a cry will be;

  • ‘OWH’ – I’m sleepy
  • ‘HEH’ – Change me
  • ‘EH’ – Burp me
  • ‘EAIRH’ – I have wind.

I love how Dunstan helps us distinguish the difference between upper wind which is usually a quick sit me up for a short burp – ‘EH’ – and lower belly wind, which is much more painful and often turns to screaming – ‘EAIRH’ – and requires more massaging and perhaps knees pressed into the belly for the baby to release gas.

Anytime we have a crying baby it can be stressful for not only them but also for us. Remember that no one understands your baby better than you. Always take every piece of ‘parenting’ advice with a pinch of salt. A lot of families use Dunstan as a guideline and say their baby makes a slightly different sound. Either way, knowledge and narrowing down crying into 5 primary reasons means we can run a checklist when it occurs, which can also be very helpful for partners and other carers too.

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