Sob Story


Babies have a lot going for them. Their big eyes and fat cheeks are cute. Their skin is soft. When not sitting in their own excrement, they smell quite nice. The problem with babies is that they’re not great communicators. If babies could talk, being a parent would be easy. Probably babies would be repetitive. Probably they would say, “I would like to suck on a breast now” over and over; or, “I am tired and should get some sleep, but first I would like to suck on a breast for a bit.” Listening to babies would be boring as anything, but it would still be preferable to babies’ chosen form of communication: going completely apeshit.

The good news for babies is that no one is taking their communication difficulties lightly. An increasing number of parents are enrolling their pre-verbal babies in sign language classes. Australian mom Priscilla Dunstan recently announced on Oprah that she had discovered “the secret language of babies.” (“Eair,” in case you were wondering, means “I have lower gas.”) For parents particularly interested in what their babies have to say about their bowel movements, there is also EC, or emissions communications, a method of studying a baby’s face to anticipate bodily functions.

But the most creative solution to the baby communication problem comes from Spanish electronics engineer Pedro Monagas. Like most parents, he was frustrated by his newborn’s incessant crying. Unlike most parents, Monagas didn’t throw up his arms. Instead, he tape-recorded his son Alex’s cries and listened to the tapes again and again. It was a chore most parents would consider about as fun as eating barbed wire, but Monagas’s masochism was only beginning. By digitally analyzing Alex’s cries, he began to detect patterns. Cries for hunger were rhythmic and tended to increase in intensity. Cries of discomfort were drawn-out whines followed by a short pause, and so on.

To confirm his suspicion that a baby’s cries are distinct and expressive, Monagas spent the next three years analyzing the tantrums of more than 100 other Spanish infants. His testing revealed the same crying patterns again and again. All babies, it turned out, were alike in their unhappiness.

The result of Monagas’s research is perhaps the most bizarre and intriguing baby invention of all time: a handheld electronic device, dubbed the WhyCry, that uses digital signal processing to measure the pitch, volume, and frequency of an infant’s cry and then, after a 20 second pause, translates the cry as either “hungry,” “sleepy,” “bored,” “annoyed,” or “stressed.”

I tested the WhyCry on my son Isaac when he was four months old, and I found I enjoyed carrying the device around. Using the WhyCry gave me that brief “I’m more important than people realize because I’m in possession of a special gadget” thrill that all men know. Granted, there were some less fun moments. My wife, Jennifer, was not especially amused to find me standing over a screaming Isaac with WhyCry in-hand when I should have been comforting him, and she was even less amused when, ten seconds after she began to feed him, I looked at the WhyCry and blurted out “He’s hungry!” as though I had just solved a great mystery.

For all my testing, I have no idea if the WhyCry actually works. According to Monagas, his machine is 98 percent accurate when measured against infant body language associated with specific cries. But then how can we know if the body language interpretation of crying is accurate. The rooting instinct sometimes makes it easy to tell if Isaac is hungry, but boredom, stress, and annoyance are murkier territory, especially since the solution to all of these conditions seems to be the same: immediately giving Isaac something, anything! to suck on. And even if we could determine basic needs from a baby’s body language, it begs the question of why we would still want to shell out $100 to $150 for the WhyCry.

If I had my doubts about the WhyCry, I was still fascinated by the mind that dreamed it up, and so I tracked down Monagas and called him at his home in Castellar del Valles, Spain.

Monagas’s belief in the universality of the cry had me wondering if he could determine anything about animal communication. I was embarrassed to ask what I feared was an idiotic question, but Monagas surprised me by revealing that he had already developed similar technology for dolphins and whales.

When I asked him how the same device could work for babies of different ages when their cries sound so different, Monagas explained that the frequency and modulation of a cry is exactly the same whether a baby or an adult is crying.

“So if I cried out of hunger, I’d make the same sounds as a baby?” I asked.

“Yes, of course, if you don’t speak,” Monagas said. “But normally the adult is not crying for hunger, no?”

Monagas had me there. I left our conversation thinking he was a very smart, if eccentric, man. The painful truth is that babies will always be inscrutable, and it’s precisely this inscrutability that opens the door to the proliferation of advice books and bizarre products. Everyone is an expert when there is no way to be proven wrong.

On the other hand, the WhyCry is a fun toy, and a great conversation piece. My friends love playing around with it, and ever since Monagas told me that it can interpret adult cries as well, I’ve found it hard to resist caterwauling into the machine when I’m home alone.