Screaming Babies and Toddlers: When Baby Shrills and Screeches

There’s a time in a parent’s life when the unthinkable happens: Their formerly quiet baby becomes a noisy baby. As in a really loud, screeching baby.

Jasmine*, mother of two from Germantown, Md., says her son started screeching at about a year old and didn’t fully stop until he was about 2 1/2 years old.

All babies have different ways of communicating how they feel.

“Mostly, he would screech when he was bored,” Jasmine says. “One of his favorite times to screech was in restaurants, right after we had ordered the food. It was so hard because we couldn’t eat out very often. To get around this, we would walk him around right after the food was ordered and not bring him back to the table until the food had arrived.”

A shrieking baby and a shrieking toddler are two different creatures, but the noise mostly stems from the same thing – their inability to tell you what they really feel or want.

Babies: Finding Their Voice

Sharon Hausmann, the executive director of Smart Start, the early childhood division of United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, says it’s important for parents to learn how to “read” their babies.

“Babies have a voice starting at birth, whether it is cooing, crying or gurgling,” Hausmann says. “While they may not use words, babies have several ways to communicate with parents and caregivers. Parents can learn to understand a child’s nonverbal communication and behavioral cues, such as the sounds she makes, her facial expressions, the way she moves and the way she makes (or avoids) eye contact. Learning to effectively respond to these cues in the early months of her life will make communicating with her much easier when she is able to speak in complete sentences [around] the age of 2.”

According to Hausmann, all babies have different ways of communicating how they feel. Around 8 months old, babies begin to develop their autonomy but are unable to verbalize how they feel. This can cause some babies to be frustrated and cranky, which often leads to crying and screaming. Responding to a baby’s cries in a calming manner provides a sense of trust and comfort.

“Babies usually shriek as a reaction to pain, stress or a basic need,” Hausmann says. “Parents should respond to their child, using a soothing voice to let her know it’s OK to cry while paying attention to the nonverbal signs of discomfort.”

This time can be very frustrating for a child because she is unable to fully verbalize her feelings. Using nonverbal clues to communicate can go far in easing frustration. Hausmann suggests trying to learn some simple sign language to teach your baby.

Linda Gilkerson holds a Ph.D. in early childhood education and has spent 30 years in the field of early childhood development. She is currently a professor at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in childhood development, and one of the founders of the Fussy Baby Network, a program that serves parents who struggle with their babies’ crying, sleeping or feeding concerns. She says the vocal play of a developing baby can become quite boisterous.

“Between 6 and 8 weeks, they begin to coo,” Gilkerson says. “Then comes a period of vocal play from 4 to 6 months. Here they test out their vocal track and we see the beginnings of very soft sounds and very loud sounds and very high sounds and very low sounds. This may be the time when it seems like a baby is shrieking. Babies at this stage will vocalize for attention and vary their sounds, and yes, volume to draw others into interaction with them. Babies are highly social and want to be part of the family.”

This period can be hard for parents, as well as joyful, Gilkerson says. “Babies begin to really laugh (around 4 months) but soon after they also start to turn up the volume and intensity and make direct bids for attention. It can feel like your baby is more demanding,” she says.

Todders: A Whole Different Story

Though the basic reason for toddler screaming, shrieking or screeching is the same as for babies – discomfort, inability to communicate, etc. – the range of emotions for the noise is far greater. Toddlers sometimes screech just because they can.

Gilkerson says that loud babies don’t necessarily turn into loud toddlers. It depends on the child’s temperament. “We think of temperament in part as reactivity or the intensity in which emotions are typically expressed,” she says. “The more intense babies are louder, may show emotions more dramatically and may get upset more easily (or laugh more easily). For parents, the challenge is how to stay calm and to respond to the source of distress (or elation) that your baby is communicating. Will your intense baby be an intense toddler? Possibly. If so, the same strategies will help: Stay calm and try to read and respond to the underlying message that your child is giving.”

Between 18 and 30 months, toddlers’ main developmental agenda is the establishment of a sense of autonomy and a sense of self. Gilkerson says that in addition, toddlers’ increased mobility and curiosity about the world fuels their drive to explore, practice and try out new things. At the same time, their ability to express themselves with words is still limited.

“While the toddlers’ agenda, thus, is one of increased self-assertion and independent activity, the parents’ primary agenda is to keep the toddler safe and protected during their love affair with the world,” Gilkerson says. “Needless to say, this frequently leads to a battle of wills. However, because of the toddler’s immature language abilities he or she may frequently express his point-of-view through tantrums and possibly shrieking, crying and the ever-present ‘No!’ With increased language development and parental ability to negotiate while setting firm but empathic limits, this behavior typically disappears around age 3.”

So developmentally, the typical toddler is exuberant, intense and enjoys her own growing physical capacities, including the sound and volume of her own voice. Because they are growing into their sense of self, screeching gives toddlers a feeling of competence when they can produce such a loud noise. This is often why requests to be quiet are often met with even louder responses.

“Continuing the loud behavior can be seen as an attempt to assert themselves,” Gilkerson says. “It can be helpful for parents to remind themselves that this annoying behavior is more connected to the toddler’s development of a sense of mastery rather than an attempt to provoke the parent. With this in mind, the parent can set limits in a more matter-of-fact, less reactive way. For example, parents can set rules about ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ voices and keep reminding their child of this rule.”

One way parents can view the screeching baby or toddler is as a normal, happy, developing human being. It may not save your ear drums, but it can go far in helping you deal with the noise!

Toddler Taming Tips

“Toddlers’ enthusiasm and energy as expressed vocally can be a wonder, but as parents know, there are times where this is appropriate and other times when it is not,” says Cindy Jurie, co-director of Partners in Care in the Erikson Institute, Chicago, Ill. “Because so often toddlers get a big reaction from parents and others when they use a big voice, this can be a way for them to get adult attention. Being consistent with the use of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ voice reminders is important. [Give] them times where it is OK to use an ‘outside’ voice and a reminder when we go inside we use our ‘inside’ voices.”

Toddlers are beginning to develop a sense of self, and this newfound autonomy feels very powerful, especially at gaining attention when others are around, Jurie says. “[Help] your child understand that we take turns in talking and it is not always their turn. Paying attention to children’s nonverbal cues can be helpful. At times a child’s increasing noisy-ness may be a sign that they are having trouble ‘keeping it together’ and may be looking for adult help in calming their very powerful emotions, whether it is tiredness, over-stimulation or fear. Making a game out of ‘quiet voices’ where one can use whispers in the toddler’s ear can appeal to the part of the toddler that greatly enjoys silliness.”

* Last name withheld to protect privacy.