Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The 5 Words Your Baby says from Day 1: Reviewing Priscilla Dunstan's Baby Language

The younger of my two daughters was a cry baby. It wasn't her fault; she was in constant pain due to a heart murmur and an underdeveloped tummy that was (and still is) prone to intense bouts of acid reflux. Things were so bad that for the first 9 months of her life, she could not be laid down flat or even on a wedge to sleep. Momma & Daddy had to take turns holding her upright on our chests in the rocking chair every single night. It felt horrible. Knowing that she was hurting and couldn't explain made us feel helpless. We would have given just about anything to know what she was trying to say.

With those memories flashing through my head as I began thinking about our new baby's first days, weeks, and months, I started scouring the web for ideas on how I could better understand the messages my baby would be sending me. I found this:


I was hooked. I had to learn more. I found the Dunstan Baby Language system on and added it to my registry (which I use as my own personal baby-related shopping list). When I showed the clip to my Mom, she said that she loved the concept, but didn't know if she felt it truly worked. She had a hard time hearing the differences in 3 of the 5 "words". The three she struggled to hear were the same three I struggled to hear. The two that I could hear loud and clear were the two that would naturally include other physical signs. 

With a $30 price tag, I decided I shouldn't dive in without more research. Abe and I reserved the DVDs at the local library and watched them together with our daughters. I didn't want Abe to have the same perspective that I had, so I did not show him the Oprah clip before we watched these DVDs and I avoided telling him what the system was all about. 

Watching the 2 disc set (which could easily be put on a single disc) left me quite underwhelmed. Nothing included in the DVDs made me feel better prepared than the YouTube clip had. In fact, I found that I vastly preferred the YouTube clip to the $30 DVDs. Worse still; I still could not (and cannot) clearly differentiate the subtle differences between "neh" (hungry), "Eh" (upper wind/needs to burp), and "Heh" (discomfort). I can occasionally hear the "n" part of "neh" and then figure it out, but everything else is iffy at best. The remaining two words, "Owh" (tired) and "Eairh" (gas), were fairly obvious, but I question whether or not they would be obvious without assigned words to them.

As much as I wanted to find some mystical answer in this system, I didn't. I do intend to rewatch the clip from Oprah after my baby arrives and see if I feel like I've learned something, but I won't be purchasing the DVDs or even leaving them on my registry.

I wanted to get Abe's opinion on the DVDs, too. Here is his review:

Tonight I checked out a Dunstan Baby Language DVD from the local county library. Dunstan Baby Language, more recently going by DBL, is a series of products based around the hypothesis that babies innately try to communicate using 5 sounds, and that by learning and recognizing these sounds parents can take care of many of their babies basic needs before the baby resorts to crying. After viewing the 2 DVDs and conducting some online research, my stance is as follows: Priscilla Dunstan seems to be profiting off of the desperation and uncertainty of parents. 

The cries and sounds exemplified in the DVD seem to overlap with one another. While I make no claim that my hearing is as perfect as Dunstan's, it seems that this is exactly what the DVD makers are counting on. The goal of DBL is to place the idea that the sounds babies make are formed based upon their underlying causes, that these sounds are universal, and that if the efforts that a parent makes to respond to these sounds are wrong, it is a matter of the parent needing to get better at listening. Form seems to be applied to noise, with that noise only being nominally differentiable in any consistent way, and any error is attributed to the user and not the model. The hypothesis, in practice, is almost unfalsifiable and relies largely on confirmation bias. This is evident in the BBS and blog entries and comments of frustrated parents who have bought into the system. Frequently, parents complain of being only able to recognize one or two sounds, often the most general and common of the causes for which an infant would require attention. While watching I found this offensive and reminiscent of faith healing. Unfortunately, there seems to be no James Randi devoted to products designed to bilking parents out of money.

While I found the DVDs distasteful I was unprepared for the company's website, which, while giving off the appearance of well-meaningness, was downright offensive. The site unsurprisingly, and this is not an object of my offense, is geared towards convincing parents to buy DVDs and enroll in training to teach the methods of DBL. This ( may be the latest, though not most brazen, attempt to create a new type of Black Belt Academy. What I find truly objectionable is the attempt to claim evidence and research-based standing while at the same time vilifying and dismissing the very notion of independent research and review. An excerpt:

For 8 years, worldwide research was conducted that finally validated a remarkable idea:
that every baby, of every race, colour, & culture made these same 5 sounds before they 
cried out. And each cry meant baby needed something specifically. No more guessing.

All you had to do was LISTEN. And respond before the crying escalated.

But then:

It’s natural to wonder, Could this baby language be real? 

A cursory Googling with find many thousands of happy mothers blogging & reporting about
their own experience. 

Amazon.comhas over 100 vocal reviews alone, positive & negative. 

Academia is inclined to ignore such unscientific anecdotal evidence. After all, what would an
unqualified mother possibly know? 

It's troubling to me that the company will on one hand claim that their methods have been tested and "finally validated", while on the other dismiss "Academia" and its insistence on repeatable inquiry and non-anecdotal evidence, and do this with an implication of anti-matriachal sexism. DBL, on that very page, goes on to make note of a Brown University study as well as one by The Leading Edge, a "commercial research organisation". Of course, what could an unqualified mother know that isn't better filled in by companies trying to profiteer than researchers that may perhaps be more open to investigative rigor.

The findings of The Leading Edge are summarized as well, and read like the label on a magnetic wristband that spritzes acai extract:
    • 90% of all mothers reported that DBL is valuable and would recommend it to other mothers 
    • 100% of first time mothers reported it was valuable and would recommend it to other mothers
    • Significant increases in maternal self esteem and significant reductions in parental stress
    • Almost 70% of test mums reported their infant settled faster after using DBL
    • Almost 70% felt more confident as a mother and more relaxed and in control
    • Over 50% reported more unbroken sleep for themselves and their baby. 
    • 50% felt more bonded to their baby 
    • 50% believe their baby is feeding better
    • DBL not only helps mothers, but also benefited 2 out of 3 fathers, resulting in reduced levels of stress, greater paternal involvement in the baby’s care, and more positive marital relationships

While they go on to say that they will provide copies of the full reports, and do include some tables charting their claims from these studies, one has great reason to doubt both the methods and findings of these trials, as it seems beyond likely that these studies were essentially a petri dish for the bacteria of reporting bias, publication bias, and expectancy bias. Whether the Brown University testing was to be sufficiently rigorous is itself dubious, but canceling those plans to instead conduct commercial trials which claim the pretense of Brown's methodology seems at least dishonest.

If some parents find that listening for certain sounds in their baby's cries leads them to be more responsive and more confident in their reactions that can have real value, and is not at all an unlikely outcome for adopters of DBL. Parents of infants are desperate to know that they are doing all they can for their baby, frustrated when nothing seems to be working, and eager for answers to the basic question of how to help. They are unconfident, and they are exhausted. It's shameful that DBL has gone so far to take advantage of this.

Have you tried Dunstan Baby Language
How did it work for you?


  1. After having my first son in 09 the nurse in the hospital gave it to me to see while recovering. My aunt, husband and I followed the "program" and I thought it worked very well. I could even hear the cries in other newborn babies and had to stop myself from intervening! We didnt use it for our second child and had a more difficult time meeting his needs but we survived. I wouldnt have bought the videos though. Its all online anyways. I think I am going to revisit them and see if it works with our 3rd child!

  2. I've never heard of this before. When I wear my newborns a lot I've quickly learned that they have different cries and behavior depending on what their needs are. I guess that's what this program is claiming to teach. I don't think I would need a DVD program to listen to my baby.

  3. The DVD’s give great info and it really works but there is no need to have it on 2 DVD's. It's completely draged out just to make more money. I wrote about my experience with: Dunstan Baby Language . I believe like Charonda that you can find the info online and successfully implement it without spending almost 30 dollars on 2 DVD's.

    Judi, maybe you did not need the info and kudos to you but some of us found it really helpful. For instance when a baby is hungry it sound like the baby is trying to say the letter N and this is present only when it is hungry and not in any other cry.