How babies communicate using a secret language

Did you know babies have their own language and use it to communicate with those who are caring for them to tell us what they need?

Nope, I didn’t know either. As mum to a two-year-old and eight-week old twin sons (pictured having cuddles with me last night), this is a revelation and has already helped me understand Charlie and Jack this morning.

RMNow I don’t know about the theory behind it and whether it’s scientifically right or wrong, but know I hadn’t finished watching the 17 minute long clip of the lady behind the idea, Priscilla Dunstan, when I got to try it for myself.

She appeared on Oprah back in 2012 and the clip is currently doing the rounds on a closed Facebook group for parents in my local area, who are discovering it for the first time.

In a nutshell, Priscilla has a “photographic memory for sound” and claims to have determined the pre-cry sounds babies aged 0-3 months make.

I think as a parent or regular carer you know what the cries mean, although having two tiny tots crying, often at the same time, has certainly made it harder to determine meaning.

Sound reflexes

Priscilla says infantile “sound reflexes” act as signals in humans and that across cultures and linguistic groups there are five sounds, each with a meaning, that are used by infants before the language acquisition period.

In other words, regardless of your nationality and the language you speak, these noises are the same globally.

According to Priscilla we all have reflexes, like sneezes, hiccups, and burps, that all have a recognisable pattern when sound is added to the reflex.

sounds There are other reflexes that all babies experience, and when sound is added to these, a distinct, preemptive “cry” will occur before the infant breaks into what she calls the hysterical cry.

She states that these preemptive cries can indicate what the baby needs, like food or to communicate discomfort, and they escalate to the hysterical cry if they are not answered.

From three months, babbling replaces these sounds – so I’ve potentially got four weeks of understanding ahead before it all changes again…

The sounds are:

  • 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 nappy. The sound is produced by a response to a skin reflex, such as feeling sweat or itchiness.
  • Eairh (I have lower gas) – An infant uses the sound reflex “Eairh” to communicate they have wind 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.

Does it work?

I’m intrigued to see whether the boys will say all of them and if it’s true for us. Am sure I’ll have a chance to find out!

Charlie started to cry while I was watching the clip early this morning. Rather than straight away run through the cycle of trying to determine whether he’s hungry/tired/bored etc and what he needs, I listened.

He was very clearly making the sound to be burped (“Eh”). So I put him on my shoulder and winded him and hey presto – sure enough a mini foghorn erupted and he settled back down again.

As I was writing this article, Jack woke up and very clearly made the hungry sound (“Neh”), so I responded.

As someone fascinated by communication, this intrigues me so I thought I’d share it.

See Priscilla’s Baby Language website for more info – there’s even an app to try. (Pic credits: Dunstan Baby Language).

Check it out for yourself – watch Priscilla’s appearance on Oprah:

Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on All Things IC blog 26 February 2015.

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