21 Weeks: Baby Talk

Have you heard of the Dunstan Baby Language?

I first learned about it on an episode of Oprah I watched years ago. Priscilla Dunstan has a photographic sound memory. When she had her son, she could pick out patterns in his cries and figured out that they were connected to his needs. She has since researched the “language” on over 1,000 babies from around the world. Watch the Oprah video here to see it all in action!


The foundation of the language is that there are 5 basic baby cries (or pre-cry sounds) that are based on reflexes for baby’s basic needs. These sounds are universal to all babies, although some might express them more clearly than others.

Neh = sucking reflex = I’m hungry

Owh = yawn reflex = I’m sleepy

Heh = skin reflex = I’m uncomfortable

Eh = burp reflex = Burp me

Eairh = poot reflex = I have lower gas

When you watch the videos and hear her experience, it makes perfect sense! I have to say though that when I hear regular babies crying, I am horrible at getting it right!


There was a Pregtastic episode on the topic and one of the moms recorded her son’s cries throughout the day. It turns out nearly all of them were “eh” = gas and I had guessed all 5 reflexes wrong before guessing “eh”! I kept hearing “neh.”

Critics have said this has not been scientifically tested, but when you watch Priscilla in action, it sure seems accurate. And I think the reflex theory makes great sense.

There’s a whole DVD set you can buy to practice and learn how to study your baby. Might be helpful if you’re really into it, but I think the online videos and samples are good enough to understand the language. But maybe I really do need more practice!

I feel that like elimination communication, you don’t have to sit and monitor every single cry to put this into practice. I have heard a lot of moms say that they just know what their baby needs. But I think this could be helpful as just another trick to be aware of in times when you might be having trouble figuring it all out.

Have any of you used the Dunstan language on your babies?


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45 thoughts on “21 Weeks: Baby Talk”

  1. I remember that Oprah episode because I was so amazed with it!
    On another note, are you considering teaching your baby baby sign language? My nephews did it and it was both so helpful but also so adorable!

  2. I have never heard of the Dunstan language but I definitely can tell a difference between my daughter’s cries…at almost 7 months, she seems to use one a lot to express mild fussiness or boredom and then she has another for when she is really hungry or angry or overtired…I will have to try to see if I can hear more subtle differences!

  3. I saw that show whenever she did it with Oprah and I was convinced that I’d learn everything from it whenever I decided to have kids. To be honest, I didn’t actually need it but I remembered the basics when my son was born. He is an exceptional communicator so I’ve never wondered what he needed when he made baby noises and I’m sure you’ll be the same way but this is a great fall back.

  4. I saw that show too and rewatched it a week after my daughter was born. It was interesting because she actually did make those noises most of the time…but I found it more reliable to rely on my intuition to figure out what she needed. Now (at almost 4 months), her cry has changed significantly–it’s more of a yell now–but for a few weeks it was neat.

  5. I definitely hear a difference in cries and can see a difference in his face too. Like sometimes tears, sometimes turned down lip, sometimes looks mad or painful or just whiney. It was hard to hear the cries in the beginning!

  6. I watched that clip and a few others when our daughter was a few weeks old…while I found it helpful to distinguish between some of her cries, there were other times when she would get going and it would be hard to tell what she wanted. But it was nice to have the knowledge so I could try some different tactics.

  7. This reminds me of the baby sign language trend. I find the ideas to sound great in theory but in my opinion, babies have been communicating their needs to their parents for eternity just fine. In the very beginning, as a new parent, there might be some times when you’re frustrated and don’t know what exactly the baby needs but there’s only so much it could be anyways, and over time you’ll become an expert on communicating with your baby and vice versa.

    1. Sign language was an absolute necessity for us. My little guy was pretty frustrated during most of his first 12 months. A lot of it, I think, had to do with the fact that he was frustrated with his language limitations. We taught him a couple of signs at first at about 11 months – “all done”, “more”, “milk/nurse” and he picked it up about 2-3 weeks after we introduced it. We were at a Whole Foods and he saw/recognized some coconut water and started doing the more sign frantically! Previous to that he would have started screaming/tantruming. It was pretty intense and giving him these “words” was absolutely amazing for him and us.
      I think remembering that it’s one of many tools available to parents and if it works for you then that’s amazing and you should use it. I never felt like an expert in terms of communicating with either of my kids (and I still don’t even though they are 2.5 and 11).

  8. I tried that baby language with my daughter and I couldn’t figure it out! She usually doesn’t cry for resons that aren’t really obvious anyways. When she’s hungry shd roots and cries, when she’s tired she closes her eyes and cries, she burps after feedings and isn’t gassy and if you change her when she’s dirty she stops crying. Anything else can be cured by a snuggle or a pacifier. It seems col though!

  9. I watched this video when Fitnessista posted it and I was a little too late to the game because Olivia was four months and they say these reflex cries end at three months. However, I could easily recognize two of my daughters cries, most specifically her sighing yawn cry when she was tired. It was described perfectly by the video I just didn’t know thats what was going on! So I think there is truth to it and you will know your baby’s cries no matter what!

  10. I have three children and could never figure out what different cries meant. Maybe once they got to about a year old I could tell the difference between fussiness, overtired, etc, but certainly I couldnt at a young age. I envy those who can distinguish difference cries. But even if you can’t, you figure it all out 🙂

  11. I tried this when mine was little but I found a lot of them ran together. For instance, “Eh” and “Neh” were always at the same time because when she had gas, she wanted to nurse because Mom’s milk is both a natural antacid, and the process of nursing stimulates their bowels which relieves the gas. Smart little buggers aren’t they?

  12. I remember seeing this episode but completely forgot about it. Thee words are absolutely accurate when it comes to my 6 week old. In fact, my older boys laugh and call the baby a horse because when she’s hungry she cries “Naaaaaayyy (neh)!” I can’t wait to start listening for other words now 🙂

  13. I remember hearing about this when I was pregnant, decoding the cries so to speak and it seemed so impossible. And listening to another baby’s cries, yes, it would still be hard for me. But very quickly you will figure out your own baby’s cries and what’s needed. Not always, but you’ll get good in a hurry. Necessity is the mother of invention!

  14. Haha…that episode cracked me up– I remember the mom panelist was a little embarrassed that almost every cry was gas 🙂

    I loved listening to that episode and found it really interesting…but at the same time, when Lila cries now, the last thing on my mind is trying to “decode” which specific cry it is– I just want to make it stop! 🙂

  15. Have you read Secrets of the Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg? I happen to think the book is fabulous 🙂 She talks a lot about really listening to a baby’s cry so that you can respond with what they need. She has a whole chapter with not just the sound of the cry but also the actions (flailing arms, arched back, rooting etc) correlated in. While I will admit that I am pregnant with my first (so I haven’t used the knowledge on my own child) I am a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse and I have seen a lot of what she talks about with the babies that are closer to term/newborns. It’s currently my favorite “baby care” book 🙂

  16. I’ve also heard that mothers tend to instinctively learn what their baby’s cries mean. I don’t have children yet but I have learned what my dog’s barks and growls mean. I can identify sounds that mean: playing, scared/danger, UPS man, I-see-a-cat, frustrated, etc. I think this must be good practice for babies!

    1. Haha, that’s so true about dogs!

      We were pretty lucky with our son, he was not a crier and just liked to be on a schedule. Being a stay at home mom for the first five years I got to know pretty much what he wanted and when, to the point where when he went to speech therapy for his prematurity the teacher was like “He needs to physically ask you for something, don’t use your instinct to give him what he needs”. That was hard for us, I’d tell him “Tell me what you want”, and he’d look at me like “Lady, you know what I want and give it!!”. Lol 🙂

      1. We are currently seeking speech therapy for my son (almost 22 mos) because I anticipate all his needs…he has never needed to talk. 🙂

        I kind of take issue with this method. Learning to use and challenge your motherly instincts is a part of the process that is so precious. Difficult, yes, but SO rewarding. I really do understand the attraction to/interest in things like this, but I also think there is so much to be said for going through that trial and error. It’s so triumphant when you figure out those early issues!

        But hey…I probably shouldn’t even leave that comment because if there is one thing I’ve learned in 22 months, it’s that mothering styles are as varied as babies, and there is no right way. Whatever you decide to try, you will surely have an amazing bond with your little guy. Good luck!

  17. All studies and theories aside your natural mothers instinct will kick in. You and your baby will be able to communicate just fine. In the beginning I would start to stress out and think oh my gosh I hope I am giving her what she needs, I hope I am doing this right, what if I don’t know what she needs…. But if you just stop and calm down for a moment and listen to your gut you always know what your baby needs. You two will be connected like nothing you could ever imagine. It is amazing.

  18. I used it Kath with Greta and really found it helpful. It helped me to know if I had burped her enough and when she was whining in her bassinet if it was a true cry or if she needed changed, burped, etc. I found the first dvd of the 2 disc set the one that applied most to us.

  19. I watched it and did some research on it when my baby was little and I wanted to learn it, but I can’t really say it helped either way. We already knew most of his discomfort was due to gas in the first two months, and after that you’re basically in the groove. 99% of the time I know exactly why my baby is crying, 6 months in.

    And heh/neh/eh are not really distinguishable to me. Maybe I have bad ears. 😀

  20. I don’t know if the same sound cry means the same for every baby. But I sure can tell the difference in my baby’s cries. Its deffinitely a very different cry based on hunger, hurt, tired, etc. And now that shes 8.5 months she just added a new one…”I am mad and want to be picked up right now even though nothing is really wrong!”.

  21. I haven’t seen this before –cool! I take a parenting class called RIE (rie.org) with Lucy – it’s about learning to observe and communicate with your child in a mutually respectful way, and one of the things they talk about early on is paying attention to different cries/patterns so you can more easily meet your baby’s needs. I think it’s pretty common sense after you get to know your baby, but it’s a relief for you both b/c when they feel their needs are met they’re happier and more self-confident – and your life is easier!

  22. I did this a bit with my second baby (he’s 5 now!). The cries are easier to distinguish when you can actually see the baby – certain sounds go with certain mouth shapes. You’ll also know more by instinct, due to the context of the cry. Like, if it’s been a few hours since his last feeding, there’s a good chance it’s a “hungry” cry. 🙂

  23. YES!! I used this method with both of our kids – and it totally worked for us. As a previous poster mentioned, it is easier to distinguish which cry the baby is using if you can see them. Also, it’s a necessity to catch the first few noises. If the baby is really worked up it’s almost impossible to distinguish. My husband would walk through Kroger and if he heard a baby cry he’d say “hm.. that sounds like a ‘neh’.” It was pretty cute how into it he was too 😉

  24. I tried this with my son who is now 3 months old – I could never hear him exactly make those specific sounds and found that after a while I was able to discern what he needed 90% of the time anyway! But it is a fun theory 🙂 If only I had a photographic memory for sounds (what a strange way to call it)

  25. I was told over and over again by friends and mothers and random ladies I met in the supermarket that I would instinctively know what my baby’s cries meant. Uh….no. Mothering fail. Pugs had bad colic, and cried most of her waking hours from 5-12 weeks old. The Dunstan Lady (and the Happiest Baby on the Block books) saved my sanity. I’m still not sure if it was because it really taught me what her cries meant, or just because it gave me something to focus on besides “The baby is screaming! The baby is screaming!!! What do I do!?!?!”. Instead, my partner and I got to have some very calm discussions on whether that was an eh, a neh, or an aiighhghg, and then figure out what to do from there.
    I’ll always remember one night in particular – Tabitha woke up crying, a real neh sound. I fed her. Her cry changed to an eh sound. I burped her. It changed to an aigh sound. I cycled her legs till a resonant fart erupted. She sighed a satisfied happy sigh, and fell asleep instantly. (And so did I!)

    1. Oh I like that success story! Now that I saw the Oprah video (Thanks for the link Kath!), I feel like I’ve heard almost all of those distinctive cries of my friends’ babies. I hope that comes in handy with our little guy come July!

  26. This is such a good tip, my daughter used this method and found it worked very well, the physical signs are used together with the sounds. Our local Library has the DVD’S, so that might be a good source to check.
    Babies operate on animal instinct, so they pick up easily on muscle tension, and the sounds of your heart rate and breathing, so thats why when they are going crazy town and someone else takes them , they mostly calm down.You are the Mommy, why wouldn’t your heart be breaking if they are very upset…of course you would be tense.

  27. I tried the Dunstan Baby Language and found in real-life I could rarely make sense of the sounds. But I did do baby sign language a little bit and found that helpful

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