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How one mom learned to translate baby cries

Your infant is screaming and nothing you do seems to satisfy her. In her book, "Child Sense," child development expert Priscilla J. Dunstan shares how to decode your baby's crying. In this excerpt, she writes about how she learned the language.
/ Source: TODAY books

Your infant is crying and you don’t know why. Every day, parents struggle unsuccessfully to understand why their children act the way they do. In her book, “Child Sense,” child development expert Priscilla J. Dunstan breaks down those barriers by explaining how to decode your baby’s crying. In this excerpt, she writes about how she learned the language.

Chapter one: Discovering the key to the sense types
During the months of pregnancy, many of us fantasized about the bond we would soon have with our child. We imagined cooing to each other, holding each other close in a bubble of mutual wonder, fascination, and intimacy. Even before our baby is born, we are able to bring to life a deep love for that child. Yet after the child does finally arrive and is in our arms for the first time, this lovely imaginary bubble often bursts all too soon. We find ourselves faced with the seemingly incomprehensible cries and needs of a baby we have difficulty soothing, and sometimes with something even more disturbing: a feeling of complete incompetence about our ability to take care of this new life we have brought into the world.

I know this feeling of uncertainty intimately. Before I became a mother, I imagined that blissful state with my soon-to-be-born son. At the time, my partner and I had moved out into the countryside on a piece of land with hills, horses, and a great expanse of sky. We had dreamed about having an idyllic life close to nature, where we would raise our child free of the stresses of the city or suburbia. But life after Tom's arrival was quite different from what I'd imagined. My country refuge began to seem like a trap. With Tom's father both working a lot and traveling overseas regularly, I found myself quite isolated and alone. My baby cried incessantly, and instead of feeling blissful, I went through months of muddled bewilderment, frustration, and self-doubt. I tried to soothe Tom by rocking him, nursing him, and taking him for walks. He would cry some more, and I would give him a warm bath or sing to him. Once I even tried doing some simple yoga movements while holding him, hoping that the rhythms of my motion and my breathing would calm him. Nothing I did seemed to work, and I was growing more and more upset — almost frightened.

Unbeknownst to me, Tom was in a constant and intense state of physical agitation due to colic, which was the reason behind the long periods of nonstop crying and his inability to respond to soothing. Compounding my misery over my inconsolable baby was my own suffering from horrible migraines, which often left me visually impaired. There were times during this stressful period when I literally could not see my baby. Day by day, my confidence in my ability to take care of my child dwindled, leaving me unsure of what to do and truly worried about whether I was up to the enormous job of motherhood. However, it was thanks to my migraines that I stumbled across a partial solution to Tom's distress. When I had the migraines there were times when I couldn't eat anything, with the unexpected result that Tom's issues with gas and intestinal discomfort actually lessened. This led me in a roundabout way to the discovery that what I ate had a big effect on my baby. When I began looking at my eating habits I realized that dairy products were the staples of my diet, and that the cheese and yogurt I liked so much were making Tom sick. It turned out that Tom was suffering from colic and reflux, greatly aggravated by his allergic reaction to the lactose in my breast milk from any kind of dairy I had ingested.

But my diet was just part of the problem. When I stopped eating dairy, Tom's reflux did decrease dramatically, but he was still very fussy, unable to stay asleep for long, and unresponsive to any of the calming tactics I tried during his long bouts of crying. The next stage in my journey to discovering how to help my child began with a strength that I never dreamed would come to my rescue as a parent: my ability to listen.

My acute sense of hearing is in part due to my very early exposure to music. My mother started my musical training before I was even born, by playing classical music while I was still in her womb. Then, as soon as I was physically able, she introduced me to the violin, using the Suzuki method. Since I couldn't read music at the age of three and four, my mother would play something for me and I would play it back from memory. Because of this ability, I was labeled as having an eidetic memory, which means that my sense of hearing is so precise that I can remember any sound or piece of music with great accuracy after hearing it only one time. Related to this ability to memorize music is an even stronger ability to recognize patterns. My skill and ease with music and pattern recognition led to my early career as a professional violinist and later as an opera singer. (Indeed, music is just that: a pattern created by the arrangement of musical notes.) My ability to pick up on sound patterns was also what eventually led to my discovery of a universal baby language.

Blinded by migraines and worried about my ability to be able to respond to Tom's needs when I could barely see him, I began to listen to his cries with such acuteness that I eventually discerned that certain sounds were repeated time and again. Gradually I realized that each of these sounds had a precise meaning that expressed a different need. The first distinct sound I recognized within a cry was "neh," the sound associated with hunger; it actually made my breasts leak. Through trial and error, I identified a second cry, which sounded like "eairh," and seemed to indicate lower gas pain. A third cry, "owh," meant he was sleepy. I eventually isolated five distinct sounds, each of which expressed a different physical sensation and need: hunger, sleepiness, discomfort, gas, and a need to be burped. Once I understood the meaning behind his different cries, I happily fed him, burped him, held him, and helped him to sleep, essentially meeting all of his most urgent needs. Often I was even able to anticipate what Tom needed, thereby avoiding the crying altogether.

To make a long story short, over time I began to realize that babies everywhere made the same sounds that Tom made to signal the same needs. I'd be in a park and see a young mother looking miserable as she tried futilely to stop her child from crying. Based on my experience with Tom, I'd venture a guess about what the baby wanted. Lo and behold, the baby would calm down, and the mother would look at me as if I was a miracle worker. And it didn't matter what the ethnic group of the mother and baby was. The cries always seemed to be the same, across all cultures. I felt I was on to something that could help all mothers. As it turned out, I seemed to have stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone of baby language.

The language of babies
Having discovered what I believed to be a universal baby language, common to babies all over the world, I wanted to share it. As the daughter of a scientifically rigorous child psychologist, I knew that if I wanted to make the case for the existence of this language so that I could bring it into the public eye and help other struggling mothers, I would need to produce a body of evidence that met exacting research standards. So under the guidance of my father, Max Dunstan, a renowned Australian psychologist who until his retirement was the director of the Educational Testing Center at the University of New South Wales and a specialist in testing and educational protocol, I began what turned out to be an eleven-year period of research. During this time I opened an office in Sydney and began working one-on-one with families (mostly mothers and their babies), collecting data for my emerging research project. (Later on, I would expand this office into a full-fledged clinical research center.)

The research involved more than a thousand babies and their parents, from seven different countries and of thirty different ethnic backgrounds, and it fell into five separate phases: an observation phase, during which I observed hundreds of babies, both in real time and on tape — in doctors' offices, hospitals, my own and others' baby clinics, playgrounds, and even shopping malls — and analyzed their cries; a classification phase, in which, with the help of my father, I created a research protocol that enabled me to record, describe, and classify the five distinct cries; an intervention phase, in which I interacted with parents in order to troubleshoot and advise them on how to use this information about infant cries; a clinical trial phase, in which, with the help of professors and physicians who worked at Brown University's world-renowned Infant Behavior, Cry and Sleep Clinic (IBCSC), also called the Colic Clinic, we further refined the parameters and measurements of my research in a clinical setting; and finally, a private research phase, in which we hired an independent research company to verify our findings. The results were gratifying. We found that

  • 90 percent of all mothers thought that the ability to understand and recognize the five distinct sounds babies made when crying was very beneficial
  • 100 percent of first-time mothers reported it highly valuable
  • 70 percent reported their baby settled faster
  • 50 percent of mothers experienced more unbroken sleep*
  • 70 percent reported feeling more confident as a mother, experiencing greater self-esteem, a reduction in stress, and a feeling of being more relaxed and in control
  • 50 percent of mothers felt a deeper bond with their baby*
  • 50 percent experienced better feeding*
  • 2 out of 3 fathers reported reduced levels of stress and more positive marital relationships as an immediate result of greater paternal involvement

*Specific to the United States and Australia Source: Dunstan Baby.

My research into infant baby sounds also ended up bringing me worldwide attention, culminating in an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” And though I was quite surprised by the breadth of this international exposure, I was thrilled because it helped me to achieve my goal of reaching as many mothers as possible. I knew that when parents learned to discern their baby's cries, they would immediately transform their ability to respond to their children in wonderful, satisfying ways, enhancing their bond with their child.

What does this all have to do with the book you now hold in your hands? The research I conducted independently in Australia and that which I did with colleagues at Brown University's Colic Clinic, as well as my ongoing one-on-one work with families in what soon expanded into a research center in Sydney, not only offered an amazingly simple yet very effective way for parents and other caregivers to understand and meet their babies' needs but also led to a profound and potentially even more important discovery, which is the subject of this book.

At home and in the research center
As had happened before, my son, Tom, played an important role in inspiring me to this further discovery about how children communicate. Once I began to meet his physical needs in a consistent, direct way, Tom's colic began to subside. I found that most of the time I was able to calm and comfort him. He became a much happier baby, and I became a much happier (and relieved) mother. But as time went on and Tom grew toward toddlerhood, I began to sense another challenge to our ability to communicate with each other. No longer a fussy, agitated baby whose needs, once I had learned to decipher them, turned out to be relatively simple and straightforward, he was now a wild, rambunctious little boy. I found myself constantly guessing about what was behind his actions and behaviors. As all parents know, once our children move beyond one year of age, they show themselves to be quite the complicated creatures.

At first I thought that some of his new behaviors — throwing all his toys in the middle of the room, running and jumping on the furniture no matter how many times I told him not to, and nearly tackling me with his boisterous affection — were simply the rowdiness of a boy with mounting levels of testosterone flowing through his veins. But Tom sometimes became very physical with me too — alternately pushing me away or refusing to let me go, which I found quite puzzling. I can recall one incident very clearly when we went to visit my father. Tom and I were on our own by this point, and Tom was so excited to see and spend time with his grandfather that he actually pushed me out of the way. This aggressive, physical manner was quite startling, and the more of it I saw in the months that followed, the more I began to feel as if Tom was actually the dominant one in our relationship — and he was all of two! His intense physicality seemed such a driving force in his personality, and was so different from my own temperament, that it was hard for me to handle, and again I felt as though I didn't know what to do. I began to ask myself questions: Should I discipline him by taking away his toys? Give him a time-out? Try to explain to him why these behaviors were not okay? I tried all those approaches, and I also tried to settle him down with soft music and to distract him by putting him in front of a DVD or reading him a story. But nothing seemed to work once he got himself wound up to a certain point.

Although I'd used my knowledge of baby language quite effectively to understand his needs as an infant, both his needs and his way of expressing them were becoming more complicated as he moved further into childhood. I was feeling so tired — so physically and emotionally drained by these demands — that I began to worry that, while our relationship was not exactly antagonistic, something was coming between us, weakening our bond. Being the daughter of a psychologist and well schooled in what the experts had to say about attachment theory, I feared that anything that undermined our connection to each other would be a threat to his well-being. After all, hadn't I learned that his bond with me was what would enable him to feel safe and secure in the world? Wasn't I supposed to be the main source of his ability to form positive, healthy attachments? Wasn't it up to me to provide him with the emotional and psychological building blocks that would form the foundation of a strong sense of self and give him the ability to thrive and grow emotionally, cognitively, and socially? And wasn't our bond important not just in the first few months of life but throughout his childhood?

But my understanding of the importance of establishing a close bond with Tom didn't seem to be making it any easier to understand or communicate with him. When he was a baby, it took a lot of trial and error before I understood Tom's cries and figured out the best way to respond.

Excerpted from "Child Sense" by Priscilla J. Dunstan Copyright © 2009 by Priscilla J. Dunstan. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. To learn more you can visit Priscilla's website at: