Dunstan Baby Language

phoebe ekwetzel open mouthTwo weeks into parenthood, I was starting to read Phoebe better. I knew when she was tired what her “tired cry” sounded like; however, I had no clue what the difference was between “I’m hungry,” “Change my diaper,” as well as other cries. It was frustrating for both of us: I’d often give her the wrong thing late at night, and it would only make things worse. Further crying would ensue. I’d feel bad for my unhappy baby & she’d feel bad for her unhappy self.

Then a couple friends told me about Dunstan baby language. The premise is quite simple, actually: when a baby needs something, they’ll naturally form their mouth a certain way: a yawn if they are tired, for example. When the baby adds vocalization, the cry vocalizes this mouth position, giving it a distinctive and recognizable sound. Not all cries are exactly the same, but using this basic principle, Dunstan distinguished between 5 different cries that appear is almost all babies, cross-culturally.

(You could buy Dunstan’s dvd, but I just pulled the info from wikipedia. Verbatim. This is my “I’m not plagiarizing, just quoting” disclaimer.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


I have gas – 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.

I wish I had known these “baby sounds” from day 1! Having the knowledge of these tools has helped Mr. Wetzel and me meet Phoebe’s needs more quickly and to understand her better. I can tell when she’s uncomfortable or hungry that she is less stressed about it now that we understand her better.

If you’re an English major geek like me, it also makes you wonder about the nature and history of language and how the phenomenology of words and sounds influence each other’s development and meaning over time. These baby sounds are a universal form of communication; and yet our actual words for hunger, sleep and discomfort vary widely from tongue to tongue.Except for one word: Mama. I think that’s the same everywhere. Because Mamas rock. Universally.

By ekwetzel


3 Responses to Dunstan Baby Language

  1. JD May 12, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    Horray for Dunstan! We used it obsessively and it REALLY worked for us. I’m glad that it’s helping for you guys too. I actually bought the dvd set but it didn’t have anything additional in it that you couldn’t find in your post and online. It’s amazing how much natural survival there is in a newborn baby!

  2. Sherri Erickson May 13, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Wow! This could be on a hand-out given to every parent of a newborn! I’m sure your readers will appreciate and pass on the information.

  3. Joni May 14, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    You are genius. Also Ella says mamamamama all the time and it is the cutest. Thing. Ever.