You know when your baby is happy because they coo at you. When your baby is unhappy, they let you know with a loud wail. You may have even noticed that your baby’s cry sounds different from time to time.

But what does each cry mean? If only your baby could tell you what they need at 3 a.m. so you can both go back to sleep. Well, it turns out there might be a way to “speak” your baby’s language.

Dunstan baby language is one way parents try to understand what their baby’s cries mean. The Dunstan method notes that babies have a universal “language,” no matter where they’re born or what language their parents speak.

Is Dunstan baby language worth learning — on top of everything else you need to know for your baby? It’s actually easy to learn and you may be able to meet your baby’s needs faster if you do so.

Dunstan baby language was created by Priscilla Dunstan, an Australian opera singer. She observed that all babies make certain sounds just before they cry. According to Dunstan, learning these sounds can help you figure out what your baby is trying to tell you before their crying escalates.

Dunstan is not a speech therapist or expert on babies, but she used her skills as a singer and vocalist — and her ear for music — to carry out research on babies around the world for eight years. The end result was Dunstan baby language.

Dunstan baby language is more of a technique than a “language.” It’s simple for parents and caretakers to learn and apply to most babies.

According to Dunstan baby language, there are only five sounds that all babies make just before crying. These sounds — not the actual cry — are what you need to listen for to figure out what your baby needs.

The five basic sounds in Dunstan baby language are:

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

Dunstan baby language also uses a baby’s body language and hand gestures to help you understand why your little one may be crying. Parents are also encouraged to observe the number of cries and in what pattern (if any) your baby is crying.

Along with crying sounds, Dunstan baby language 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, she is likely uncomfortable or in pain.
  • Clenching fist. Fist-clenching is usually mistaken for pain or anger, but it actually may mean that your baby is hungry (or hangry).
  • Jerking arms. This may mean that your baby is startled or scared.
  • Back arching. If your baby makes himself bow-shaped she might be in pain or just uncomfortable. Back arching might 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 gas or colic. Or she may just be happy and want to play!

Dunstan baby language works best before your little one begins learning how to make new sounds. This is because as your baby begins to try to form sounds and speak, her natural, reflexive baby sounds may change.

You can begin using Dunstan baby language right when your baby is born. It’s most useful for babies 3 months old and younger, but you can use it even if your baby is a bit older.

Dunstan baby language is a fairly new technique. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from parents and caregivers who claim that learning Dunstan baby language has helped them better care for their newborn babies.

However, the effectiveness of Dunstan baby language is still under review.

In one study, researchers in Romania tested 65 recordings of babies from around the world. They used a computer to pick out the five different sounds that babies make, according to Dunstan. The research study reported that 89 percent of the baby sounds were recognized correctly.

Most recently, a study published in 2020 classified baby sounds using a more robust method. This study’s accuracy rate in classification was up to 94.7 percent.

Another clinical study measured stress levels among new parents. Researchers found that parents who were taught Dunstan baby language reported lower levels of stress than a control group who were only instructed in standard ways to take care of a newborn baby.

Studies found that the biggest obstacle in detecting your baby’s reflexive sounds is that the vocalization period before crying is often short. Parents must be present and super attentive to be able to catch the clues before full-blown crying ensues.

More research is needed to determine the true accuracy of Dunstan baby language. However, the studies mentioned indicate that babies likely do make similar sounds no matter where they are or what ethnicity they are.

Secondly, parents who learn Dunstan baby language may be better at knowing — or guessing — what their little one needs.

Much of the ongoing research into Dunstan baby language uses computer-based technology to recognize the frequency, pitch, and other sound characteristics across a set of babies.

One study in particular is examining the feasibility of making a computer application (an app on your phone) that could “listen” to your baby’s cries and then tell you what she is “saying” using Dunstan baby language. The research into making a new kind of baby language product is ongoing.

The sounds that newborn babies make until they are about three months old are not really speech or language. Baby sounds used by Dunstan baby language are actually baby vocal reflexes. This means that a baby will automatically make these sounds with his voice box if he is feeling a certain way.

Language development is different for every baby. At 2 months your baby may giggle and laugh when you speak to her and try to copy your mouth movements.

Just a month or two later, your baby might begin forming sounds and babbling a bit on their own. This is when the baby vocal reflexes used in Dunstan baby language may change slightly.

Most babies may begin copying sounds and using repeat syllables like “mama” and “bababa” between the time they are 6 to 9 months old.

Dunstan baby language is a technique to help you understand why your newborn baby is crying. It may not work for every parent, but many parents anecdotally report it works for them.

Any little bit of understanding helps when you’re trying to soothe your crying little one. By observing your newborns cries and movements, you might discover you can respond to their needs more quickly and effectively, giving you more confidence as a new parent.