Next time your baby cries, you might want to hold the little one up to your iPhone. A new app could translate those yells into adult-speak, telling you whether it's a cry for food or perhaps a nap.
After 10 seconds of crying, the Cry Translator (patented by Biloop Technologic, S.L.) will light up one of five icons to indicate, the company claims, whether your baby is hungry, tired, bored, sleepy, stressed, or in some kind of discomfort.
While you might think the cry decoder is as valid as having a conversation with your dog or cat, some research suggests there is meaning behind those wails.
For instance, scientists have found the pitch and frequency of a baby's cries can indicate health problems and even the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to research published in 2005 in the journal Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
Other more recent research has shown the cries of newborns already bear the mark of the language their parents speak. For instance, one study showed French newborns cry with rising melody patterns, slowly increasing in pitch from the beginning to the end, while German newborns have falling melody patterns, both of which are consistent with their prospective languages. That suggests infants are already picking up bits of language in the womb.
And while newborns may not have language for some time, pediatricians have known they cry to communicate.
"Babies do cry; it's their main form of communication," said pediatrician Jamie A. Freishtat, adding that over time parents tend to figure out what certain cries mean. "I know that anecdotally a lot of parents, after time, say, 'Ah she must be wet,' by a certain cry. I think pain [is something] parents tend to pick up on."
That "I'm in pain" cry could be higher pitched or more shrill, said Freishtat, who is also a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Even so, all babies sound different, just like adults. "I'm not sure if you had ten babies and they were all hungry if you would get the same cry from each baby," Freishtat told LiveScience.
The Web site set up for the new baby-cry app acknowledges the variability of cries, explaining that rather than tone or pitch, the technology relies on some kind of pattern in the cries.
The company cautions, however, that the technology is meant to help parents and caregivers understand what their infant is trying to communicate and is not a stand-in for a medical doctor.
Freishtat echoed this caution: "Regardless of how a parent is trying to interpret his or her baby's cry, if a baby is ever crying inconsolably (won't stop regardless of interventions, such as offering a feed, changing a diaper, holding the baby, etc.) then it is very important to contact or go to the doctor immediately because that can mean there is something more serious going on."
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.