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Understanding Your Baby's Cries: The Dunstan System

By Edited Jul 20, 2016 2 8

There are five distinct sounds that a baby makes to convey their needs. The Dunstan system describes these as sound reflexes. Priscilla Dunstan developed the system after realising that she could differentiate the sounds her baby made. As an Australian opera singer Dunstan has a tuned ear to different sounds.

Each different sound can enlighten parents to their baby’s needs before hitting that ‘hysterical crying’ level. Parents are also able to reduce the amount of time spent using trial and error to work out what is bothering their baby. The five sound reflexes indicate hunger, tiredness, discomfort and wind.


Baby crying


I’m hungry – Neh

When the sucking reflex is triggered, the baby’s tongue pushes onto the roof of their mouth resulting in a ‘neh’ sound as they cry. Babies will let you know when they are hungry. For the first few weeks, breastfed babies will feed every 2 -3 hours whereas formula fed babies feed every 4 – 6 hours. Breast milk is more easily digested by the babies’ system than formula.


Bottle and Dummy


I’m tired – Owh

Similar to an audible yawn, a baby makes an ‘owh’ sound when they are sleepy. Try some settling techniques to ready your baby for bed. Wrapping, rocking, holding or patting may settle your child.




I’m uncomfortable – Heh

Whilst this may seem very general, there are actually just a few things that are likely to be bothering your baby. Usually they are too hot, too cold or they might just need a fresh nappy. Cloth nappies usually need to be changed more often than disposable nappies because of the way the moisture is absorbed.


I need burping – Eh

When the baby feels air in their chest, they produce the ‘eh’ sound as a way of trying to get it out themselves. Try these different ways of burping your child:

  • Sitting them upright on your knees whilst patting or rubbing their back
  • Laying them across your knees on their tummy whilst patting or rubbing their back
  • Holding them upright on your chest with their head over your shoulder


I have wind – Eairh

This sound is quite similar to the burping sound but is a little more urgent. Babies will often lift and lower their knees at the same time to try and release the trapped air. Many infants do not like being on their back when they have wind. Try laying the baby down with a wedge to roll them slightly on their side or you can try sitting them more upright. Ensure that you stay with your baby whilst they are in these positions.

Baby crying(108622)

 The Dunstan system has featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah is quoted as saying “I love this!” Instructors in more than 20 countries give classes on the Dunstan Baby Language system. Described as “a new way of listening to infants,” instructors can help you to become more relaxed and confident around your baby.

Dunstan Baby Language is available on DVD. Included are video examples of each sound as well as solutions and settling techniques. Baby Ears is the iPhone app that is available from August 23rd as a handy tool to help parents on the go. The app also shows videos of the different cries to help parents decipher their baby’s needs.



Sep 9, 2012 12:43pm
Hi--My having babies days are a long time over but I enoyed and appreciated the information and sinceret of your article. And, as a person interested in baby/child psychology I was quite intrigued. 2 big thumbs up for you
Sep 10, 2012 2:12am
Thanks! The Dunstan system really helped me in the first couple of months :)
Sep 13, 2012 12:28pm
Excellent read, we're expecting our first child, and I'll definitely keep this in article in mind
Sep 16, 2012 5:20pm
Congratulations! That's wonderful!
Sep 13, 2012 5:07pm
Melissa- thanks for sharing this. I have three school-aged kids and this would have been super-helpful in those early months. My near-toddler will be an excellent case study for these sounds; I'm actually sitting with him now. I'll listen for the dreaded 'eairh' sound!
Sep 16, 2012 5:22pm
No worries! I'm hearing the 'owh' sound quite a lot lately, but at least that's somewhat of an easy fix compared to the 'eairh' sound.
Sep 18, 2012 7:04am
Great article!
I like the idea with the DVD presentation for better understanding of an infants needs.

Thumbs Up!

Sep 22, 2012 4:07am
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