Understanding your newborn baby’s cries

by | Nov 14, 2021 | Being a Mum, Newborn, newborns

Understanding your newborn baby’s cries

When I was pregnant, a well-meaning friend told me “you’ll have no trouble understanding your newborn baby’s cries”. And I went along with it, because surely as a mother, it would all come naturally. Right?

Now, if your little bundle of joy hasn’t arrived yet, I don’t want to burst your bubble. We all have a different path to travel. But I know for me, after an early, semi traumatic birth, a baby who spent over a month in the Special Care Baby Unit (and never cried there), it was definitely a shock to hear my son cry (all. the. time.) when we finally got him home.

I felt like a useless Mother! Why couldn’t I tell what my baby needed? Why was he crying all the time? What was I doing WRONG!? Where was my understanding of my newborn baby’s cries?

Talk about a baptism of fire.

All babies cry

Yes, it’s normal for babies to cry, and you shouldn’t be scared of it. It’s their way of communicating. To put it in perspective, a 2017 meta-analysis which included 8690 babies showed that mean cry duration across the studies was around 117-133 minutes a day over the first 6 weeks of age. This dropped to a mean of 68 minutes a day by 10-12 weeks of age.

But if you’re not used to it, that still feels like a lot of crying.

The truth is all babies cry.  There are some babies who cry very little, and some who cry more – it often depends on their temperament. Most crying (including colic) occurs within the first 6 weeks of life, and generally improves by the 9-week mark. So, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Even the most intense baby will lessen their crying around the 3-month mark. Even those colicky babies (who typically cry more than 3 hours a day, for more than 3 days a week) improve, I promise. By 4 months of age approximately 90% of colicky babies are “symptom free”.

 Seriously, if your baby is fed, clean, dry, comfortable, and loved – you’re doing a great job. But that doesn’t always make crying easier to bear. If you have no understanding of your newborn baby’s cries, you can feel bereft and alone. And that’s not a fun place to be.

Do babies have a secret language?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a way for your newborn to tell you what they needed? That all the crying that typically occurs within the first 12 weeks had a rhyme or reason. What if your newborn baby could actually tell you what they wanted or needed? How would understanding your newborn baby’s cries help you?

Yes, babies cry, but as a new mum being told that “babies cry” (by your midwife, Plunket, and GP), isn’t always as comforting as well-meaning people expect it to be. Am I right?

A secret language of babies? This may sound too good to be true, but there is a theory that appears to work. There actually is a “language” you can learn – and in my (13) years of experience. It works with all newborn babies (and often others who are older too). Welcome to the world of Dunstan Baby Language.

Dunstan Baby Language

Dunstan baby language, named for Priscilla Dunstan who recognised the reflexes, is one way parents can learn to recognise five sounds that can be used to quickly identify and interpret what a baby needs. Yes, it is as simple as that. Give it some practice and you’ll be understanding your newborn baby’s cries in no time!

The theory is that we all have reflexes, like hiccups and burps for example. This can cause a recognisable sound when added to the reflex. It is possible to use these infant vocal reflexes as signals; even before the infant has started developing language. These reflexes are most prominent between 0 – 3 months (hence it’s toted as a  “newborn” language).

What’s more, this reflex method of Dunstan Baby Language is universal across cultures and languages. And while it can take some getting used to, it’s often easier than it sounds. At least after some practice listening.

There are five basic sounds in Dunstan baby language, these are:

  • Neh = “I’m hungry!
  • Eh = “Burp me!”
  • Eairh or earggghh = Gassy or need to poop
  • Heh = physically uncomfortable (hot, cold or wet)
  • Owh or oah= “I’m sleepy.”

Along with these “crying” sounds, Dunstan baby language also recommends looking at your baby’s movements. These include:

  • Head rotation. If your baby does this movement without crying, it may mean that she is about to fall asleep. If your baby is crying while moving her head side to side, he or she is likely uncomfortable or in pain.
  • Clenching fist. Fist-clenching is usually mistaken for pain or anger, but it may mean that your baby is hungry (or hangry).
  • Jerking arms. This may mean that your baby is startled or scared. It will be worse when overtired.
  • Back arching. If your baby makes himself bow-shaped she might be in pain or just uncomfortable. Back arching can signal that your baby is over-fed, bloated or colicky. Babies older than 2 months might also arch their backs when they are just tired or uncomfortable.
  • Lifting legs. If your baby is lifting or bending her legs towards her stomach, she might have lower gas or colic pain. Or he or she may just be happy and want to play (if there are giggles involved)!

Yeah, sure, but does it work?

I for one, can definitely vouch for it. Dunstan baby language was a life saver for me when my son was a newborn. He didn’t need more feeding (as I thought) he was super gassy and needed to burp! Once I learnt that, everything got easier.

The trick to hearing the sounds is to really listen to your little one before the crying gets intense – the reflex sounds will often be at the beginning of the cry. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, studies have shown that the accuracy rate of interpreting what babies wants using the Dunstan Method is up to 94.7%

To find out a little more, you can watch this YouTube clip where Oprah (remember her?)  interviewed Priscilla Dunstan. Oprah may have initially been sceptical but even she was convinced.

Here’s the takeaway

Understanding your newborn baby’s cries involves listening and comparing their sounds to the reflex sounds. It does take practice, and it may not work for every single parent (we all have a different “ear”), but many parents anecdotally report it works for them. The takeaway is that understanding your newborn baby’s cries is possible! Even if you don’t tap in to that “mum instinct” straight away (and that will come).

Any bit of understanding you can gain to soothe your crying baby will help relieve stress, improve sleep and give you more confidence as a parent. And that’s important when everything is new.

When used in conjunction with me, Kim Corley, at Cherished sleep and the Sleep Sense™ system, Dunstan Baby Language can be used to dramatically improve your routines and nights with your baby. Understanding your newborn baby’s cries is just the start of your journey. One I’d love to help you with when you’re ready to extend your parenting village, or if you’re struggling to get your little one to sleep.

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