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There’s a general assumption that once you become a parent, you instinctively know what your baby wants and are immediately blessed with the ability to crack the baby code.

Mothers are almost expected to have “superpowers” when it comes to tuning into their baby’s wants, needs and emotions. But how do you know what your baby’s crying means. Are they hungry or struggling with wind? Here’s how to crack the baby code and decipher their cries.

Coauthor of Baby Sense, Ann Richardson, says: “Essentially, babies can only communicate with us using body signals such as arching of the back or loss of eye contact. They also make noises like grunting, gurgling and crying. Parents have to ‘read’ these signals to try to understand them.”

She adds that these signals, together with the development of physiological maturity, which enables your baby to show pleasure by smiling at around four to six weeks, and the emotional maturity to experience separation anxiety around nine months help to give a composite picture of your baby’s needs. “For example, babies under 12 weeks cannot laugh out loud, but they can show joy by smiling, widening their eyes, flapping their arms and kicking their legs,” she says.

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Baby code 1: Decoding neonate and baby emotions

According to Durban-based paediatricians, Drs Ronnie and Das Pillay, physicians and the public have for years believed that a newborn baby is unable to respond emotionally to pain and pleasure. However, they say: “Despite the fact that the higher brain centres in the neocortex are not yet functional, expressions of pain and pleasure; sensations of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and stimuli – though basic – are evident from birth.” Bonding between mom and baby happens through touch, sight and sound stimuli.

Within a month, emotional reactions are clear as the baby will show that he is upset or overwhelmed by stimulation. “Early in the neonatal period, infants cry. These cries signal hunger, soiled nappies or the need to be cuddled. This is often recognised by mothers as a normal cry,” says Dr Das Pillay. He adds that there are individual variations in infant cries.

“The cry of pain may be higher pitched or unvarying in pitch, which is indicative of distress. Facial grimacing, clenching of eyes and pulling of the mouth are indicative of an infant in pain. Refusing to eat and turning away may suggest problems in the mouth, throat or tummy,” he says.

But, the most common reason why babies cry is because they are tired. This is  especially so in the first three months. Babies sleep a lot and your baby’s sleep signals will come more often than expected, says Richardson. The “I’m tired” cry may be a chopping wail, but keeping a diary of your baby’s sleeping patterns will help you tell when your baby needs to nap. Meg Faure, the other author of Baby Sense, says the following are warning signs that your baby is tired or overstimulated: sucking of hands, looking away, moaning, pushing you or toys away and arching.

The Dunstan baby code

Australian mother Priscilla Dunstan found herself in a predicament when doctors told her that she needed to learn the meaning of her son’s cries. Her immediate reaction was: “Where on earth do I learn that?” No one could tell her how to differentiate a hungry cry from a tired cry.

Dunstan, a former mezzo-soprano who was able to hear and remember sound patterns from birth claims that all babies make a universal set of sounds within the first 12 weeks of their lives. She discovered this while listening to her son. Relying on her unique gift to interpret sound patterns, Dunstan used the knowledge to develop the Dunstan Baby Language system, which helps to decipher the baby code.  The universal baby sounds Priscilla identified are based on reflexes, which are the same in all newborn babies. When sound is added to these reflexes, it creates five universal “words” that mothers tune into to understand their baby’s needs:

Neh I’m hungry

A baby uses this sound reflex to let you know she is hungry. When the sucking reflex is triggered, the tongue is pushed up on the roof of the mouth, producing this sound.

Owh I’m sleepy

The sound is similar to an audible yawn.

Heh I’m experiencing discomfort

The “heh” sound is used to communicate stress, discomfort or needing a nappy change. A baby says “heh” in response to a skin reflex, such as sweat or itchiness in the bottom.

Eairh I have lower gas

This could be flatulence or an upset tummy. When trapped air from a belch is unable to escape, it travels to the tummy where the intestinal muscles tighten and force out an air bubble. This produces the “eairh”sound. It also often indicates that a bowel movement is happening. In this instance, the baby will bend their knees, bringing the legs toward the torso.

Eh I have gas

“Eh” means your baby needs to be burped. The eh-sound is produced when a large bubble of trapped air is stuck in the chest and the reflex is trying to free it out of the mouth.

What do these signals mean?

Arching back

You have to look at these signals in the context of what’s happening, Faure advises. “An arching back could be a sign of a number of things, but it generally means that the baby’s experiencing overall discomfort. Check when your baby is arching her back. If it’s after a feed, it could be reflux.” Faure adds that an arching back could also indicate overstimulation, especially in premature babies, or pain.

Head banging

It could be a behavioural problem or a sign of pain from an ear infection, says Faure. Babies tend to head bang when experiencing deep pressure.

Grabbing ears

“Look for the organic problem first, for example if it’s a sign of ear infection or if your baby is teething. However, your baby could also just be tired or discovering his ears,” Faure says.

Kicking legs

This could be a sign of happiness and excitement as your baby explores his world. It could also be that he is overstimulated.

Clenched fists

This is a reflex in newborn babies and, as they get older, they generally stop clenching their fists. If your older baby is overstimulated or frustrated, they may clench their fists.

Scrunched up knees

When your baby’s knees are scrunched up in the fetal position, he could be looking for comfort.

Ruwaydah Lillah