The Baby Listener

Photo by Jessica Hills
Photo by Jessica Hills

Editor’s note: The amazing Priscilla Dunstan will be a regular contributor to New York Family Baby this year. She’s also available for private consultations. For more info, see

Priscilla Dunstan is a behavioral scientist specializing in parent-child bonding and a recent transplant from London to New York City with her 15-year-old son, Tom. She became an international sensation in 2006, when Oprah Winfrey endorsed and showcased her discovery: the “Dunstan Baby Language.” This system classifies infant’s cries and translates them so that parents know exactly what their babies need and can address those needs without trial and error.

Since then, Dunstan’s books, DVDs, articles, and parenting programs have helped moms and dads around the world more easily and more effectively bond with their children. But if you’re not familiar with her work, a great place to start is with her famous segment seven years ago on “Oprah” (which is still regularly viewed on YouTube). Now, as then, for many parents—and especially new parents—her work is like a revelation, one that’s very welcome, perfectly understandable, and yet amazing to behold.

Explaining the appeal of her work, Dunstan says: “So often with new parents, you spend all your time trying to figure out what the problem is with the baby; plus moms and dads are already stressed. It can be a very difficult and overwhelming period.” But, as Dunstan sees it, learning to speak your baby’s language is actually giving them the best possible gift: the security of being heard and understood. “It’s much easier to bond with someone who’s smiling at you,” she adds.

Dunstan’s road to global popularity began when Brown University examined Dunstan’s findings and expressed interest in doing research with her. Together with Brown, Dunstan formed a clinical worldwide study, one of which was run in Chicago, where Winfrey first heard about it. After her TV appearance, Dunstan’s DVD version of her program sold over a million copies within three months.

The award-winning author has written seven books on the subjects of understanding and bonding with babies and children. Dunstan’s latest is Calm The Crying: The Secret Baby Language That Reveals The Hidden Meaning Behind An Infant’s Cry. The book, like all her work with babies, is underpinned by her discovery that healthy human babies have a universal “secret baby language” based on physical reflexes that all infants share, regardless of nationality or ethnicity.

According to Dunstan, there are over 200 translatable reflex words. Parents can begin easily with the five universal words repeated by infants. They are: “Neh” (I’m hungry); “Owh” (I’m sleepy); “Heh” (I’m experiencing discomfort); “Eairh” (I have lower gas); “Eh” (I need to be burped). Parents can then move on to more words, such as those for teething.

Her support for parents continues beyond the first year of their child’s life with another approach she calls “Child Sense,” which, globally, is just as popular as her ideas about baby language and bonding. As explained in books and DVDs of the same name, “Child Sense” helps parents of young children understand the role that the five senses can play in child development and behavior. According to Dunstan, everyone has a dominant sense, and being able to identify your child’s dominant sense allows a parent to better understand their needs and more effectively address them.

Though her own child is now in high school, Dunstan says she still feels deeply connected to moms and dads with younger children and the challenges they face as they try to get to know their babies and toddlers and settle in as parents. In her experience, parents connect to her methods because they’re non-judgmental and, instead of contradicting other parenting theories, they’re helpful complements or tools to improve bonding. In the case of her book Calm The Crying, for example, she isn’t telling you what method to use to put your child to bed, but she is helping you know when your baby is sleepy.

Dunstan professes that all you really need to better bond with babies is to be a careful listener. She was born with the ability to hear more acutely than most people, with an exceptional skill for pattern recognition—a kind of photographic memory for sound, if you will. This led to a career as a gifted violinist and a study in opera singing. After hearing a concerto only once, she could play it back exactly.

Her auditory aptitude primed her to be highly sensitive to the cries of her own son. She started keeping a “cry diary”—writing down the sounds phonetically that Tom made and the action (like diaper changing) that calmed the cry in question. And the “Dunstan Baby Language” was born.

Because the idea of babies expressing themselves with such specific messaging can seem like an overreach to some people, Dunstan is still on occasion questioned by naysayers. But after 15 years of research and countless tales of parents being able to use her program to improve their bond with their child, her work is widely regarded and often used by doctors and hospitals, and other health practitioners to help new parents cope. It also helps her cause that she understands the skeptics. “As a researcher, you spend a lot of time trying to disprove yourself,” Dunstan says. “So if I find someone who has a question that I can’t answer, it’s exciting for me.”

Dunstan’s research continues, and she is presently working on a book for parents about children with verbal communication issues, including autistic children. She also lends her services to many non-profits, helping teenage moms and third-world mothers (who are often rape victims) learn to bond with their children.

For all the parents and children she has helped, naturally she cites her relationship with her own son as her most important success story. “I talk to [my son] a lot. We have a great relationship, the best I’ve ever had in my life,” Dunstan says. And, yes, to this day, she tries to be a good listener with him. “You don’t cut the other person out of the discussion or decision-making because they’re younger.” To a point. “I’m not his friend,” Dunstan stresses. “I’m his mother. There’s always that clear distinction.”

Together, Dunstan—who has been divorced from Tom’s father for the past 14 years—and her son have lived in a number of places around the world. But it was important to her (and Tom) that he have a stable high school experience, and they agreed that New York City would be the perfect place for both of them. “Tom has seen a lot of different ways of living, but he is at an age where he wants to settle down,” she says. “And I love New Yorkers; they’re very open to new ideas. They have their pulse on the world.”

In addition to tending to her books and articles, Dunstan is planning to set up a bonding and research center in the city to help local parents better connect with their children, whether they’re infants whose cries need to be understood or older kids with needs of their own. She’s also available for private consultations.

“I’ve done research on parenting techniques all over the world and found we all have the same ideal,” Dunstan says. “We want to raise healthy, well-adjusted children, who can have a lovely life and have children of their own.”

With that goal in mind, she says that improved communication skills today will pay off now and later. “You can lay the foundation of a great relationship with your kids, if you listen,” she says. “Often what they’re really fighting for on any issue is to have their voice heard.”

For more about Priscilla Dunstan visit