Can I figure out what my baby needs from its crying?

According to Dunstan Baby Language, the sound used before hysterical baby crying gives information on what the baby needs. The Dunstan website claims there is scientific research on this, but the wikipedia article denies it. From the Wikipedia article linked above:

Between 0–3 months, infants make what Dunstan calls sound reflexes...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 Dunstan calls the hysterical cry. Dunstan claims that these preemptive cries can indicate what the infant requires (e.g., food, comfort, sleep, etc.), and they escalate to the hysterical cry if they are not answered.

Can I really figure out what my baby needs by the nature of its crying? Are there ways of figuring out what my baby needs by the phonemes emitted before/during crying?

  • Doug, we are way past needing the Dunstan videos. I'll send you mine if you want (if I can find them).
    – Paul Cline
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 16:20

3 Answers 3


Hi I am a child developmentalist who works with children who have developmental disabilities. One of my areas is language development from birth. The answer to your question is 'yes' you can figure out what a baby needs by its cry. Crying is the first step on the child's path to spoken language. It is the primary form of communication from which all other communication is built. This is because when a baby cries and the parents respond, the baby quickly learns the association, - that he or she can create meaning. From there other sounds begin to be developed and we are on the road to communication.

Ignore the Dunstan stuff. Anyone making claims who cannot provide truly independent, reliable and valid research to support their claims should be ignored.

The latest research, links babies cries to later language development. It also highlights the distinctive cries and what they mean.

"For infants, crying is the sole form of communication and there are three distinct types: A “basic cry” is a rhythmic pattern consisting of a cry followed by silence; an “anger cry” is similar to a basic cry but with more volume due to the release of excessive air through the infant’s vocal chords; and a “pain cry” is a loud cry followed by periods of breath holding. Infants also exhibit what is called a “simple cry melody” – a crying arc consisting of a single rise and then a fall. According to researchers, it is the segmentation of these melodies by momentary pauses and respiratory movement that leads to syllable production."

Source. - Snowdrop Blog. - A blog dedicated to children's developmental disabilities.

  • +1, those 3 cries are fairly universal in my experience, usually with the addition of a fake-sounding "I want attention" cry when they get older but aren't quite talking yet. As for discerning when the infant needs food, a diaper change, a nap, or whatever, every parent I know mostly uses the "time since last event" approach. That's why handing off a baby for someone else to watch always involves telling them the last time the baby did all those things. Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 15:42
  • Andrew, I'd recommend that you take a look at the Dunstan videos if you haven't already.
    – Paul Cline
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 16:18

Yes and no:
yes an infant cries in several distinct ways to tell you what's wrong,
yes the phenomenon ends after some months,
no I don't think those 5 "words" (as per your Wikipedia link) are international or even noticeable.

I had not heard of the Dunstan theory before, and I don't recognise the words stated on the website. But I swear that while my son was newborn and up to maybe 5 months old, the way he cried clearly indicated if it was for hunger, sleep, diaper, or discomfort.

Other parents tell me the same; newborns do cry in different and distinct ways. But at the same time, I've not heard any pattern that is recognisable from one child to the next, so you will have to get familiar with the different cries your baby makes.

So at least I can confirm from my own experience that Dunstan is right about two things: the baby can communicate distinctly, and these distinctions wear off over time. I wish my son would keep up the distinctions because we've wondered many times since then what he wants.

  • 1
    +1 - This mirrors my experience almost exactly. IME, there are still some subtle differences later on. Crying from pain is very distinct from other cries, and cries for attention are distinct from cries of necessity (i.e. hungry or diaper)
    – afrazier
    Commented Jul 24, 2011 at 23:44
  • 2
    I agree with afrazier, both my sons cried in different ways depending on whether they were hungry, tired or needed a diaper change. Eventually you figure out what they are, and by the time you do they are onto something else. Childhood is a rapidly evolving experience for everyone involved.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 10:33

I found the DBL vocalizations very helpful for the first few months only. To describe very helpful, it was accurate, gave me confidence in what to do next, and allowed my son relief. I understand from my relatives that while they did not know these vocalizations, after their first child they were able to identify these situations.

So I would say, first baby, first three months, it's a great product that does what it says.

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