What your baby’s cries mean

How do you know what your baby wants when he cries?


My son Elliott spent much of his first year crying and bawling.


I’d feed him, wind him, change him, cuddle him and try desperately to settle him to sleep, but nothing seemed to work. I felt like the worst mother in the world. Shouldn’t I instinctively know what the crying means? Is it my fault he cries so much?

Looking back, I can put everything down to frustration. From the second Eliott could walk, he’s never stopped moving, so he probably couldn’t stand being immobile. It’s much easier to draw conclusions with hindsight, but at the time I simply didn’t have a clue. Now, you couldn’t get a happier or more contented 2 year old than my son.

It takes time to understand your baby

Child psychologist Laverne Antrobus, author of Ain’t Misbehaving (Prentice Hall), meets many mums struggling to cope with crying during the first few months of their babies’ lives.

Your response to your baby’s crying is far more crucial than understanding what it means, according to Laverne. “It doesn’t matter if he carries on crying. The one thing you want your baby to know is that you’re there for him – and by responding to his cry, you’re telling him that. If the crying goes on and on, it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed. If you feel like this, it’s okay to put him down in his cot and take a breather.”

Signs your baby is about to cry

Wendy, 32, mum to Barnaby, 4, and Maisy, 2, says she worked out what her babies’ different cries meant by identifying a pattern and then pre-empting the tears.

“A combination of things would lead to crying,” Wendy says. “I watched their facial expressions, noticed them pulling their ears or rubbing their noses when they were tired and bringing their legs up when they had colic. Once I knew the signs, it was easy to pick out different cries and understand their meaning.”

For Wendy, working out Barnaby’s cries made life much easier when Maisy was born.

“Barnaby cried an awful lot in the first six weeks. It turned out that I wasn’t providing enough milk. He was constantly hungry, so he couldn’t sleep and was really tired. With Maisy, I knew what to look for and worked out what her cries meant within a month. She needed to sleep every hour-and-a-half. To avoid a meltdown I watched the clock.”

Understand your baby’s cries by trial and error

Joanna, 33, says she could never work out why her son, Frank, now 2, was crying.

“It seemed like a subtle language I couldn’t grasp, although I suspect I wasn’t always listening properly,” she says. “I dealt with it by reacting to the cry impulsively, as something that had to be stopped immediately.

“I’d frantically try feeding or changing his nappy, regardless of whether I’d done it half an hour earlier. Then I’d try bouncing him and making soothing noises. If all else failed, I put him in his pushchair and walked around the block 10 times – the process of elimination usually worked.”

Is there a ‘baby language’?

Priscilla Dunstan, an ex-opera singer, claims to have discovered a ‘universal baby language’ that all newborns speak.

Priscilla spent eight years researching the concept that babies’ cries could be classified, asking families across the globe to record their babies to test her theory, and has produced a DVD, Dunstan Baby Language, to teach her method.  

“When I had Tom eight years ago,” Priscilla recalls, “he had colic and reflux and cried all the time. As any mum who has a crying baby knows, it saps your confidence. You want to meet your child’s needs, and your vision of motherhood doesn’t match a crying baby.”

Priscilla has an exceptional memory for sound and sound patterns (called an eidetic memory), which enabled her to identify combinations of sounds in Tom’s cries. “I recorded these sounds, settling techniques I’d used and Tom’s reactions, in my diary,” she says. “At first, I thought this was just a me-and-Tom thing, then I heard other babies making the same sounds at a shopping centre.”

Priscilla is confident her system takes the trial and error out of baby care. “It’s just a case of teaching parents to ‘turn on their ears’.”

Mums’ stories

“The Dunstan DVD might help if you have a textbook baby”

“Millie cried incessantly for the first eight weeks, and I spent most of the time holding her. It was awful to hear her distress. She was struggling with wind – but once we knew that, things improved. Understanding her ‘pain’ cry, the one that needs immediate attention, means I don’t feel guilty if I leave her for a few minutes when she’s only whingeing.

“The Dunstan DVD may be helpful if you have a textbook baby, but I felt it ignored cries such as ‘over-stimulation’. The cries Priscilla (the creator of the Dunstan baby Language theory) covers are basic human need, and most mums respond to crying by making sure their baby is fed, dry and winded. I don’t think Millie has always cried for one of the reasons given.  Sometimes there’s no discernible reason, particularly if you have a spirited baby.”

Jodie, 29, mum to Millie, 18 weeks

“Understanding my baby’s crying changed everything”

“Until I had Danny, I wasn’t a ‘baby person’, and initially didn’t have a clue what his cries meant. At first, we gave him a bottle when he cried, but that led to vomiting. I read about Dunstan Baby Language at a mums’ forum on the internet and found clips of the DVD on a website. My baby was telling me he was hungry, tired, uncomfortable, bored or windy.

“Understanding Danny’s crying changed everything. I could enjoy being a mum and his needs are being met. The Dunstan theory might only work for the first few months, but I’ll definitely go back to it if we have another child.”


Louise, 29, mum to Danny, 9 weeks

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