Translating baby talk

One of the most frustrating things about being a new parent is the time spent wondering what exactly Baby is trying to tell you when she cries. Later, when she cries a little less and babbles more, it can be frustrating (for both of you) when the words are so close, but aren’t quite there. There’s no way to translate exactly what Baby’s saying into language as we know it because she is still just learning to even think in those terms, but there are a few different strategies you can use to start to narrow down what she is trying to tell you.

Dunstan baby language

Dunstan Baby Language is the theory that all babies have five distinct sounds they make before they cry out, which can tell their parents what it is that they need. The theory hasn’t been scientifically proven, but it has been featured on Oprah, which is almost like proof, right?* Responses to the Dunstan Baby Language system have been mixed, but while it’s entirely possible that there’s something distinctive about babies’ different cries, it’s also true that they start to make signs that they’re hungry or tired or gassy before they start crying much of the time. So even if it works, it’s no substitute for knowing Baby’s personal cues and habits.


As Baby starts to get the hang of using her vocal cords, she will start making noises that sound more and more like words. This isn’t just because she’s got more sounds at her disposal, but also because she has been paying attention to your speech patterns, and is figuring out how conversation is supposed to sound. She isn’t communicating yet, but she is working up to it, so responding to babble is important, since it helps her learn the back and forth pattern of conversation. “Chatting” with Baby like this may not be helpful as actual communication now, but it’s a great way to get started having the heart-to-hearts that can help the two of you stay connected later in her life.

Speaking in code

While it’s definitely possible that Baby will move straight from babble to perfectly clear words and, shortly after that, complete sentences, many babies spend some time transitioning from making up sounds to using their own, invented words to refer to some of the most important things in their world. A lot of the time, these “code words” are related to the actual name for the family dog, or her favorite meal of the day, but in syllables Baby can easily manage. But other times, you may notice her using sounds to refer to certain things that you don’t even know where she got them from, like she is inventing her own language! There’s no reason to worry about these, since they’ll start to phase themselves out as she gets better and better with the language or languages around her, so enjoy them while they last!

*Note: Being featured on Oprah is decidedly not proof. Just ask the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces.

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