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Ask Dr. Sears: Quieting The Little Screamer

Q. My 1-year-old likes to entertain himself with ear-piercing screams. They're happy screams, but screams nonetheless. He's been doing this periodically since he was about 5 months old. How can I get him to stop?

A.
Welcome to the club: During this period in a child's life, parents spend a lot of time holding hands over their ears to muffle a beginning talker's piercing shrieks. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your son's right on schedule for delivering often-irritating noises (along with normal vocalizations). At about 5 months of age, most infants begin experimenting with the noises they can make, and for the next seven months or so, these already loud screams attain greater and greater heights. I believe there are three reasons for infants' fascination with this noisome nuisance: They're amazed at the power of their tiny voices, love to experiment with volume, and marvel at the effect their powerful vocal cords have on startled listeners -- an infant's shrill yelling can silence a room full of adults. Though these sounds can be very annoying, screaming should be considered to be a normal stage in learning communication. During your son's first year, his speech has progressed from sweet little squeaks to squeals, screams, and screeches that are, to most listeners, anything but adorable. To your son, however, screaming is a communication tool, a sound he can make that prompts an audience to listen. Eventually, however, most babies need some parental guidance to steer them in the direction of more ear-friendly sounds.

As is always the case when teaching children, you have to let them know what's acceptable and what's not. Here's how to educate your little screamer about socially acceptable communication skills:

Don't be spooked: If you jump or get startled, your reaction is of the same magnitude as his screaming. A baby can mistakenly interpret this to mean: "I have to scream to get your attention." Instead, when responding to his scream (and I know this won't be easy), react calmly and reply in a normal tone of voice. This way, you're instructing your baby, by example, how to talk in your family.

Use facial expressions and hand gestures: Nonverbal communication, such as putting a finger to your lips to request whispering, followed by an expression like, "Nice voice," teaches your son that you prefer to hear the nice sounds he's capable of making.

Scream outside: This is a trick we used with one of our 1-year-olds. As soon as Matthew started to scream, we ushered him outdoors and screamed with him. He soon learned where he could scream and where he couldn't.

As I said, during a baby's first year, screaming is a communication tool; in the second year, though, some children employ screaming as a manipulation tool. As a toddler ages, he often screams in an effort to get his way, believing that it makes his tantrum even more persuasive. You can negate this tactic very easily: Don't respond to it. Tell him, rather, to use his nice voice if he wants or needs something. He'll soon realize screaming won't help fulfill his wants or needs, and that, in fact, it has the opposite effect. Toward the end of this year, your toddler will begin to translate his high-decibel sounds into intelligible and pleasant words, and you'll be pleased to find that the screaming stage is a thing of his vocal past.

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