Three techniques for understanding what your baby is trying to say

Ever wondered what your baby is trying to tell you? 

Good news, folks, Neuroscientists and behaviourists have discovered that babies are not, after all, born a few wet wipes short of a pack. In fact, they come pre-programmed with startlingly complex abilities to communicate with their parents.

Sarah Tennant discovers three techniques for decoding your baby's communications.

People really don't have a lot of respect for babies. A friend of mine recently told me she didn't bother visiting her nieces until they were six months old because babies "don't interact" until then. Another friend once asked me if my three-month-old could still recognise me when I was wearing a hat!

Particularly among the childless, the idea that babies have no ability to communicate is still popular. How many mothers have recognised signs of communication from their babies, only to be told "It's just wind" or "He can't possibly be talking yet"? It's no wonder new parents find their babies so fascinating - we are conditioned to expect mysterious, inscrutable aliens, and we get little people!

Fortunately for babies, medical science is once again beginning to catch up to maternal wisdom. Neuroscientists and behaviourists have discovered that babies are not, after all, born a few wet wipes short of a pack. In fact, they come pre-programmed with startlingly complex abilities to recognise and communicate with their parents.

The problem, then, is on our end. Parents today are the unfortunate heirs of both the structure of the nuclear family, which lacks the continuous baby-rearing knowledge passed down in multi-generational families; and a theory of baby-training which stresses controlling and suppressing, rather than understanding babies' communication. As a result, today's parents are left pacing the floor at 3am, muttering to our darling infants between clenched teeth "What do you WANT?"

Understanding your baby's cry
To the question we all ask ourselves: Why do babies cry? The answer was discovered by a mother - Priscilla Dunstan, a one-time opera singer and concert violinist.

Dunstan's eidetic memory (the aural equivalent of photographic memory) allowed her to play Mozart perfectly after a single hearing as a child. As a mother, it helped her pick out patterns in her baby's cries. Intrigued, she began keeping notes on her son's different crying sounds and found that they followed a pattern - different noises for different needs. Several years later, Dunstan has developed and marketed this system of decoding cries as Dunstan Baby Language.

Dunstan baby language
The language is based on five "words" or sounds within cries which all babies instinctively use, regardless of nationality. A hungry baby, for example, produces a cry with a "Neh" or "Nah" sound, formed as the tongue touches the roof of the mouth - the suckling reflex with sound added. Dunstan also identified "words" for four other needs - "Eh" for the need to burp, "Eairh" for lower wind or gas pain, "Owh" for tiredness and "Heh" for discomfort (often caused by a wet nappy). International studies have confirmed the existence of these "words" in babies up to three months, after which babies tend to stop using the language.

The benefits of being able to determine what your baby needs are enormous. Not only do mothers feel empowered at being able to meet their babies' needs, but fathers are also able to decode the cries. Knowing that the baby has a need he can meet, such as changing a nappy, is a psychological boost to a dad who is used to being told "baby needs his mum" at every cry! One study reported that babies slept better, fathers were more involved in infant care and mothers were less stressed after families adopted the Dunstan system.

Of course, it's not always that easy - some babies only use three or four of the "words", while others mix them up into a cacophony of, "I'm hungry, cold, tired and lying on the Lego." And some parents balk at the hefty price tag on the DVDs, which are only useful for the first three months of the baby's life. Still, the basics of the program are easy to find online, and for some parents the system may just be enough to stop them tossing their newborn off a roof and heading for Appaloosa.

Recognising when baby needs to go
The Dunstan "Heh" sound of discomfort often indicates the need the change a nappy. Another system, known as Elimination Communication (EC), goes one better - it teaches parents to recognise when the baby is about to fill the nappy. Also known as Natural Infant Hygiene, Potty Whispering, Elimination Timing and Diaper Freedom, EC essentially begins the potty-learning process at birth.

Again, the system is based on the universal biology of babies - newborns are born with an awareness of elimination. Swaddled in disposable nappies which suck moisture away from the skin, Western babies lose that awareness at about six months. Cloth-diapered babies may remain slightly more aware, as the sensation of wetting is more noticeable - in fact, disposable training pants which feel wet are now on the market to replicate that sensation (side note: Am I the only one who finds that slightly insane?). Either way, babies become accustomed to wetting their nappies, only to slowly re-learn awareness of elimination at potty-training time.

ECed babies, on the other hand, never lose this awareness. From birth, parents take note of a baby's individual "need to go" signals, which can vary from a repeated kicking to a general fussiness. Once the signals have been recognised - usually with the help of a lot of naked time - parents respond to them by taking the baby to an appropriate pottying location and giving a cue sound. The sounds can also vary - many parents' use "Pssss", while others make up whistles or even little jingles (parenting has to be fun, right?). Over time the baby learns to associate the cue sound with pottying, and thus learns to use bladder and bowel control until she has reached the pottying spot and heard the cue.

The mention of EC tends to invite snorts from other parents - it seems impossibly high-maintenance, unworkable and perhaps just plain weird. On the other hand, most of the world has practiced it successfully and happily for millennia. Nomadic tribes don't pause every few days to wash and dry cloth nappies  - they simply note their babies' signals, take them to a pottying location, cue them and carry on. In cultures which foster strong parent-child attachments, EC is no big deal - it is simply a part of everyday life. On the contrary, from such a perspective keeping children in nappies seems positively bizarre.

In Western society, EC tends to attract mothers with an impressively laid-back approach to life. While EC has a goodly list of benefits - earlier potty learning, eliminating nappy rash and huge environmental karma points - most ECers stress that they practice it primarily as a means of communicating with and respecting their babies. Accidents, or "misses", are philosophically chalked up to developmental stages - babies often forget about pottying while they learn to crawl, for instance - and homes with white carpet are wisely avoided.

If this still sounds too hard-core, EC need not be a full-time affair. Many families use nappies at night or when out and about, and EC message boards provide warm support for parents who EC 24/7 or even once a week. (According to, a successful "catch" even once a week helps babies retain their awareness of elimination.) Starting the process with older babies is harder, but not impossible. In fact, many parents start EC after realising they do it anyway - any parent who waits for her child to wet again before putting the new nappy on has already spotted a pattern. Timing potty opportunities for just following a breastfeeding session or nap is a good way to ease into EC with a baby of any age.

Learn baby sign language
Having established that babies can communicate hunger, pain, tiredness, gas, burps, and the need to eliminate, one might be forgiven for thinking that that's all they want to talk about. But while studies have so far failed to come up with a universal baby word for "teddy" or "car", baby sign language demonstrates that such objects are indeed on our babies' minds.

Unlike Dunstan baby language or EC signals, baby sign is learned rather than instinctual. As a result, just like adult sign language, it varies according to region. Nor is baby sign identical to the adult sign language of a community; most baby sign language is derived from the adult version, but uses simpler syntax. Occasionally a few gestures are altered to make them easier for baby hands to sign; however, a child who learns baby sign is usually able to transition to NZSL later with minimal difficulties.

For most families, of course, baby sign is simply replaced with verbal communication. A common myth about baby sign is that it delays speech; properly practiced, the reverse is true. As baby sign is always accompanied by the spoken word, signing babies usually speak earlier, dropping the gesture once they have become familiar with saying the word. As signing usually starts at around eight months and the average baby only says his first word at 12 months, signing represents a significant head start in communication. A baby can sign fluently while still at the stuttering stage for speech, and some continue to use signs for complicated words like "elephant".

Signing also helps prevent tantrums in non-verbally fluent toddlers - "more" and "food" being two signs which make frequent appearances! Most babies start off with a few simple signs - "Mum", "Dad", "milk", "sleep" and "nappy"  - and then get hooked, demanding new signs as fast as Mum can look them up. And parents in turn tend to get hooked on the insights into their babies' minds.

Leslie Kung knows the benefits of baby sign better than most. A fan of signing as part of an attachment parenting philosophy, Leslie also deals with her son's life-threatening food allergies. When feeding 16-month-old Bailey some crumbs of supposedly gluten-free cake, he balked and signed that his face was beginning to feel itchy. It turned out the cake's baking powder contained traces of flour - enough to potentially cause an anaphylactic reaction. Leslie is now even more impressed with the ability of pre-verbal children to communicate.

Each of these three systems illustrates a rediscovered truth about babies: That they may be small, but they ain't dumb. By respecting the ability of babes to communicate, we not only have another reason to feel smug about our wondrous offspring, but we are constantly reminded of their person-ness. I can't think of a better thing to keep in mind... especially at 3am.


Resources and further reading

*  Dunstan Baby Language
*  Elimination Communication: Ingrid Bauer, Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of
Natural Infant Hygiene (2000; Plume, 2006). Bauer coined the terms "elimination communication" and "natural infant hygiene" after learning of the practice in traditional cultures.
*  Laurie Boucke, Infant Potty Training: A Gentle and Primeval Method Adapted to Modern Living
* Baby Sign Language
* Karyn Warburton, Baby Sign Language for Hearing Babies (Berkeley 2004)

Sarah Tennant lives in Hamilton with her husband, Dominic, and daughter Rowan.




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