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The Secret Language of Newborns

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I’ll never forget the advice my midwife gave to me two days after our daughter was born. We were standing in the room where I gave birth, bleary-eyed and delirious, as she took footprints for the birth center’s certificate. Babygirl started to fuss, and as I reached for her to nurse her, the midwife said, “aww, her lil’ tummy.”

Sure enough, five seconds later, we were greeted with an ear-splitting explosion and a stench only meconium can produce. “How did you know?!” I demanded, awestruck. “Babies are born with a language. It’s true that they cry to communicate, but each cry is a little different. You should look up Dunstan Baby Language when you get home.”

Do you think I remembered to do that? Of course not. But a few days later, after my new mommy ears started noticing a pattern, it came back to me. “Oh yeah, didn’t Laura say something about baby cries?” So I Googled around and found an interview of Priscilla Dunstan on Oprah.

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Here’s the theory: during the fourth trimester, when we’re brand new little humans, we make “sound reflexes.” Just like a sneeze or a burp, these reflexes are related to what’s happening in the body. When you add sound to it, a trained ear can identify what part of the body is related to that noise.

For example, a baby may say “neh” to let you know they are hungry. This is because a hungry mouth triggers the sucking reflex, and the tongue is pushed up on the roof of the mouth. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

I gave it a try. Girly was making the “eh, eh, eh,” sound that I originally thought meant she wanted a diaper change. Using the Dunstan Baby code, I scooped her up for a burping. She immediately let one loose and smiled! I didn’t even care that the smile was a reflex. It worked!

The beauty of this discovery is that it is universal, unrelated to any culture or linguistic group. It’s a human thing! The trick is to catch it before it evolves into a hysterical cry. Your baby will make a great effort to communicate with you, and if he knows he is understood, he’ll happily keep doing it.

However, if he’s repeatedly ignored or consistently given the wrong response, he’ll just stop trying altogether. How sad! Luckily for you and your baby, you’re subscribed to this blog and got the secret right on time.

(If you’re reading this late, don’t worry, we all learn to talk eventually! Just spread the word to new parents and save a mom’s life.)

My favorite thing about this method is how much closer it brought my baby and me. It really felt like she could tell I was paying attention. I started attaching words to these vocalizations, and very quickly I could just say “diaper change” or “milkies” and she’d stop crying. Parenting a newborn got so much easier!

Yes, it’s true that this hypothesis has not been accepted by the scientific or linguistic communities because it hasn’t gone through a rigorous clinical trial yet. However, it’s worked for so many families and is completely safe to try. If it works for you, awesome! If it doesn’t, no harm. Continue to figure each other out.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the sound glossary, but I do recommend you read her book if you want to learn more.

According to Dunstan, the five universal words (or sound reflexes) used by infants are:[3]

  • Neh (I’m hungry) – 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.
  • Owh (I’m sleepy) – An infant uses the sound reflex “Owh” to communicate that they are tired. The sound is produced much like an audible yawn.
  • Heh (I’m experiencing discomfort) – 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.
  • Eairh (I have lower gas) – An infant uses the sound reflex “Eairh” to communicate they have flatulence or an upset stomach. The sound is produced when trapped air from a belch is unable to release 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.
  • Eh (I need to be burped) – 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, and the reflex is trying to release this out of the mouth.

This is a brand new blog, so if you found this article helpful, I’d appreciate it so much if you shared it with a friend!

Tell me, do you and your baby have your own language? Are you planning on trying this when your little one comes? Let’s talk on Facebook!

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