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The Screaming Phase

May25

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesHi Amy,

I have been debating about sending you this question for a few weeks now b/c I was hoping this was a phase that would pass but so far it hasn’t. I have boy/girl twins who are 9 months old and my son has taken to screaming at the top of his lungs when he is not getting attention. It is this ear piercing, blood curdling scream that makes me immediately snap towards him and want to take some kind of action (covering his mouth, saying No No, cover my ears). I don’t mind it so much at home but it is becoming a problem when we go out to eat or are with friends and family or in public.

I just don’t know what to do. I know I can’t really discipline except to say “No. No.” firmly. If I keep doing that, will he get it? Part of me thinks I should just ignore him b/c I feel like even saying, “No No” is giving him the attention that he wants. But it is so loud that it is not something I can just ignore when we are at a restaurant b/c it is the kind of scream that makes the whole place get quiet and look over. So then I feel like I am not being “consistent” which is what everyone says is the most important part of disciplining a child.

I worry that if I choose to ignore it then I am going to seem like that mom who doesn’t actually discipline her kids or follow through. Our family has very strong ideas about child rearing and this kind of behavior is not okay. I know that they realize he is 9 months old so they don’t get mad or anything, but I already feel anxious that they are judging me for not doing enough or keeping him under control.

Is it a phase that is going to pass? Is he just finding his voice? Or has he realized that when he screams he gets the attention he wants from Mommy? And if that is the case, then how do you deal with that for a 9 month old?

Thanks Amy!
jL

Phase! Phase phase phase. And right on schedule, too, around nine months or so. The good news is that you have a completely developmentally NORMAL little guy there, one who is alert and self-aware and knows what he wants and is making his first (also completely developmentally NORMAL) attempts at communicating what he wants.

Before I go on, though, I would like to suggest that you try to reframe your thinking about this behavior — that it’s something that’s naughty or “bad” or requires discipline or that your child is out of control/out of line. While it’s not necessarily the most desirable of behavior, it’s NOT “bad.” A nine month old doesn’t really have any grasp on good vs. bad, nice vs. naughty, inside voice vs. outside voice yet, and reacting to his outbursts with scolding is just going to make you both way more frustrated, because it 1) won’t work, and 2) is telling him that his only means of communicating to you that he’s unhappy or wants something is “wrong.” You can then expect him to move on to alternatives — like throwing, hitting, aggression — pretty quickly.

Now, there are two general schools of thought regarding the screaming fits at this age. You’ll find plenty of parents advocating that you ignore your child’s screams completely (provided you know they are fed, dry, unhurt, etc.). You know, the whole “they want your attention, so withhold that until they learn to ask for it the ‘right’ way” line of thinking.

I suppose that ignoring can have its time or place — maybe after you’ve already attempted to figure out just what it is your child wants (a drink? an out-of-reach toy? a change of scenery?) and have 100% determined that they just like the sound of their own voice (which can quite often be true!) — but…well, I’m not sure what ELSE a nine-month-old child is expected to do when he wants/needs something, when he doesn’t have any words or even necessarily gestures.

And as a parent of a child who experienced some fairly significant communication delays as a baby and older toddler, let me assure you that NO WHERE in any of the books I read or speech therapy tips I received did it suggest that simply IGNORING your child’s rudimentary attempts at communication was an appropriate response, or would “help” them move forward with more age-appropriate or advanced skills.

Now, on the other end of the developmental spectrum, Ezra (my crazy highly verbal talking-in-paragraphs-at-two-and-a-half child) went through this whole screaming phase at EXACTLY your son’s age. Does this little video (taken at JUST SHY of 10 months) sound familiar, perhaps?

Why You Should Not Have Babies, Exhibit #342 from amalah on Vimeo.

Good times. He wanted cantaloupe, and was greatly displeased by my refusal to give him more than one piece of cantaloupe at a time, and thus…screamed bloody murder at me, in between each and every bite of cantaloupe, even though I was RIGHT THERE and giving him more cantaloupe. Hell yes, this was not always amusing and was fairly nerve-jangling — particularly at restaurants, or when I realized we were on our 17th screaming fit of the day and it was only 8:45 in the morning — but we got through it without “discipline” or time outs or anyone dying. I would (try to) stay calm and relaxed, say “shhhh” or “no thank you” once before immediately trying to meet whatever need he was TRYING to communicate. This — at least in theory — did not necessarily mean I was rewarding the SCREAMING with a desired action, but I was rewarding the COMMUNICATING. I was letting him know that I heard him and understood he needed something, now let’s all stay calm and quiet and figure this out together. Milk? More? All done? What?

I also, around this age, made a concentrated push to teach Ezra some baby sign language. We didn’t start that until Noah was already speech delayed, and it made SUCH a difference in our lives. So what you don’t see in the above video is that in between the cut shots, I am in fact giving Ezra more melon, while saying MORE and signing it. No other words, no extraneous mama-chatter about being a good boy or no yelling or yummy yummy cantaloupe, just MORE and the simple sign of bringing your hands/fingers together and tapping a couple times. A very easy, basic sign for babies, along with milk, all done, eat, etc.

With Noah, we used the (most, most excellent) Signing Time DVD set, but Ezra wasn’t really “into” TV so I managed to teach him all the basic signs without the use of DVDs or books. (Bookmark this ASL For Babies visual dictionary and teach yourself the signs, and remember it’s okay to modify them or substitute a more general sign for something specific.) He watched me and mimicked all on his own, because as much as we parents hate the screaming, trust me: it’s probably a zillion times more frustrating to be the baby who actually desperately wants something and has no way to ask for it. So it was pretty delightful to see the little lightbulb go off over each of my boys’ heads when they realized that signing and gesturing WORKED and got them what they wanted quicker (and more accurately) than a screaming fit.

And no, learning baby sign language did NOT delay Ezra’s actual speech. Just the opposite, really. He was an early talker who never stopped and is now crazy far ahead of kids his age when it comes to vocabulary and grammar and the complexity of his sentences. (His articulation is still delightfully baby-like, though, which makes it all the more ADORABLE.) So again, don’t look at your son as an out-of-control attention-seeking brat-screamer: You’ve got a little communicator on your hands there. Listen to him. Respond to him. Attempt to replace these early eardrum-piercing attempts with something a bit more…quiet, like sign language and gestures and single, simple words (i.e. once you realize that he wants a cracker, stop babbling at him, get his full attention and say “cracker,” accompanied by the sign). I’m not going to promise that the screaming will stop tomorrow or next week and he’ll suddenly explode with signs and language, but it WILL happen. The best part is that he clearly WANTS it to happen, which is more than half the battle.

__________________________________________________________________
If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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24 Responses to “The Screaming Phase”

  1. Elizabeth May 25 at 10:54 am Reply Reply

    ha, that video is great. Love the godzilla slow-mo. I am sending it to all my just-got-married-and-wanna-have-babies friends.

  2. karen May 25 at 11:14 am Reply Reply

    Basic signing worked really well for us too at this age. This is definitely not a “discipline” situation. I have no other advice as I’ve completely blocked that period of time out. We’ve moved onto 20 month old screaming: “What do you mean I can’t sit in the front seat and drive the car!! ahaahsdfhhhhaaa!! I hate you and I’m going to sit in my carseat and shriek aaackjkjkjkjaaa3eeee!”

  3. Olivia May 25 at 11:50 am Reply Reply

    I’ll second Amy’s recommendations. My baby took a while to catch on to sign language, but it was so wonderful when she did. The screaming and throwing greatly diminished. Now she just screams and throws because she’s two and not because she can’t communicate any other way. :)

  4. Kim May 25 at 12:01 pm Reply Reply

    You rock, Amalah.
    Baby signing is the best thing going, IMHO. 9 mos is a great time to start, although he may not start using them for months yet. Being able to actually communicate with a toddler is amaazing. It won’t stop all the tantrums, but it definitely heads them off.

  5. the grumbles May 25 at 12:15 pm Reply Reply

    oh karen. yes. that, at our house right now.

    (spot on advice from Amy, we did the same at that age. it helped loads.)

  6. HereWeGoAJen May 25 at 12:16 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter is very…willful. And a lot of people think I need to discipline her differently. But they don’t know her like I do. She loves attention and she’ll settle for negative attention. The fastest way to get her to do something over and over is to tell her not to do it. The way to get her to quit doing something is to ignore her. Obviously, this isn’t always possible (and isn’t relevant at nine months, I’m just thinking about the future) but believe me, I’ve felt those judging looks from people who think I am not “keeping her under control.” There are a lot of different kinds of personalities in babies and most people who think that you can discipline an infant either don’t have kids, or lucked into one of those easy babies.

    If it does make you feel better to be looking like you are “doing something”, I will snatch up my daughter when she misbehaves in a restaurant and carry her out. Then I stand in the most boring place I can find and don’t look at her (while I hold her as she struggles to get away). This is the best I can do in public for ignoring behavior I don’t want to reinforce. (Because in a restaurant, even if YOU don’t reinforce behavior, someone else always does, even if it is just by looking at her or trying to calm her down. Stupid strangers.) But at nine months, I’d consider that more of a being polite in public places instead of a discipline thing.

  7. Blanche May 25 at 2:01 pm Reply Reply

    Thank you Amy! Such perfect timing as my 10.5 (~9mo. adjusted) month old is just starting this….awful, awful phase.

    Her #1 favorite time/place to screech? Right next to our ear when she is being held. Happy to be held, not fighting to get down, just telling us very loudly about her happy feelings!

    In that situation, how do we discourage the screaming while trying to encourage her to continue telling us how happy she is?

  8. PinkieBling May 25 at 2:47 pm Reply Reply

    OMG that video!!! I had forgotten about it. TOO FUNNY! I’d like to see a video “interview” with him now – dying to hear the advanced speech with the baby articulation!!

  9. Melissa May 25 at 8:45 pm Reply Reply

    We started the baby sign language around 9 months also, for my son.  It took him a while to catch on though.  Probably around 12 months he first started picking up a few signs; now at 16 months he’s got a solid handful.  So it can take time.  But, although he’s developing typically as far as speech goes, he’s not a huge talker (he says about 5 words), so the signs are very helpful.  Especially ones like “more” or “all done” which are things that previously, he would have communicated by screaming.  So I definitely recommend the sign language route.  (We used the Baby Signing Time DVDs, and my son really likes them.)

    Not sure if this works in 9 month-olds, but maybe try responding in a whisper voice.  Often it quiets kids down quickly, because they have to quiet down in order to hear you; other kids quiet down because they generally mimic their parents. 

  10. Michele May 25 at 10:03 pm Reply Reply

    This is perfect- I have 9 month old g/g twins, and one of them has resorted to exactly what was in the video. It is accompanied by the sign for “milk”, which we think is her sign for “I want” based on when she uses it. I have Baby Signing Time, which they love. I think my issue is trying to do too many signs; I need to stick with 3 or 4 for right now until they start picking them up and then add more.

  11. I think the key point here is that screaming isn’t “bad” or “wrong”. A nine-month old has no ability to process these concepts.

    Instead, screaming is communication, pure and simple. If a baby’s other options for communication aren’t working, they’ll scream. The more they scream, the more they tend to default to screaming, since they know it gets results.

    I would advise someone in this situation to pay closer attention to what their baby wants. If their needs aren’t be met quickly and effectively enough, they’ll scream. If you get better at responding to their needs, the screaming will stop.

    Amalah, I loved this post! The video was a treat, and I adore your candour and down-to-earthiness when it comes to dishing out advice.

    Thanks!!

  12. Kate May 26 at 12:56 pm Reply Reply

    Just learning the signs for “more” and “all done” was enough to greatly decrease the amount of yelling coming from our son. When he moved on to pointing at things and screaming we taught him the sign for “please’ which to him really just means “I want that” but it’s much better than yelling.

  13. MLB May 26 at 12:57 pm Reply Reply

    Can I just chime in and agree with everything with one caveat? As a mom of three very loud kids, at least one of whom went through this very phase, you still have to plan accordingly when out in public, i.e. restaurants. Either go somewhere incredibly loud (we had a go-to mexican place) or take the kid out. You really need to be respectful of those around you. We’ve all been there but shrieking is still shrieking. Hope that doesn’t offend anyone.

  14. Sid May 26 at 2:06 pm Reply Reply

    Another endorsement for teaching some signing. We didn’t get much beyond teaching our daughter the sign for “please” but it was a HUGE improvement over the point-and-scream.

  15. Candace May 26 at 2:46 pm Reply Reply

    Signing. Saved. Our. Life. Seriously, give them words, and the empowerment you BOTH feel is incredible! By eleven months my son was done screaming….and he signs while saying words now….at nineteen months, so no delay here! The kid probably has a 100 word vocabulary, who knows where he gets it….(as I review my terribly word-y post!)

  16. Amy in StL May 27 at 12:17 pm Reply Reply

    Ovaries closed. Thanks for reminding me why I want them to remain that way.

  17. Julia May 27 at 10:26 pm Reply Reply

    I found the most helpful thing I have done as a parent taking baby out in public is a serious evaluation of my expectations. Babies can be noisy and they do things like scream for no apparent reason. At 9 months, he’s too little to understand discipline or no, and he really should be!

    When I accepted that screaming was just going to happen, I was a lot happier. The restaurants we take her to are of the family-friendly variety where it’s full of screaming kids and nobody pays attention. We all have more fun that way.

  18. a May 28 at 4:29 pm Reply Reply

    Awesome! Two important take-aways here:

    1. “discipline” and “9-month-old” simply don’t belong in the same sentence.

    2. Ignoring kids doesn’t teach them to communicate.

    In my experience: Baby sign language, great, sure, whatever, but it’s not magic, it doesn’t necessarily give extra super-early communication skills, and it doesn’t actually stop them from screaming if they like screaming.

    However, the only way your child will ever learn to communicate is by listening/watching you communicating with them. You want them to know that screaming hurts your ears? Tell them that screaming hurts your ears. In spoken words, or signs, or whatever you’ve got. Add an expressive “ouch” face, and follow up with an offer of whatever it is you think they want, and, when possible, some activity besides sitting still in a chair. Kids need to hear/see A LOT of language before they can start giving it back, so get talking.

  19. ms. r Apr 23 at 4:53 am Reply Reply

    Thank you so much for this article. I have something to try now w him. I have hope! Lol. My son has been screaming since 9.5 months. He’s 10 m. Now. It gets embarrassing when we go out in public. We don’t even want to take him out we are afraid of the screaming. It gets my husband and i frustrated at times and feeling helpless and overwhelmed. I’m glad we are not the only ones that have gone through this!

  20. Allie Apr 29 at 8:35 am Reply Reply

    This is exactly what my 8 month old daughter is doing. It was ok for about a week as she did it only sometimes. Now it’s constant, especially in the morning and I feel like the neighbours are going to think something is seriously wrong at our house lol. She just seems to enjoy screaming at the top of her lungs.. but it really is giving Mummy a headache. :(

  21. Lindsay Jun 16 at 10:04 am Reply Reply

    Baby sign language hasn’t worked for us. At every single feeding from 4 months on I’d sign “eat” then “milk” then feed my older daughter. She’s a very articulate 2 yo that still has no idea how to sign for “milk” or “eat”. She knows “more”, but only because we taught it to her recently. My 11 month old (which is the reason I’m reading this article) has been shown the “eat” and “milk” and “more” signs, in hopes she’d catch on for at least 8 months now. Nothing. If I ask her if she’s hungry, she’ll respond by getting excited, but she doesn’t use the gestures she’s been taught. She’s a big screamer. I’m at my wits end.

    My oldest son (17) never had a screaming phase. My youngest son (12) threw tantrums. My oldest daughter (2) screamed but only as entertainment. She never used it to ask for anything and is now learning that it is inappropriate behavior. Remember, she’s very articulate. Just emotional. My youngest daughter (11 mos) hits when she screams at you. I want to deter this behavior as much as possible. Having no real experience with this, it just seems counter intuitive to allow the behavior to continue. But I don’t know how to not allow it. She’s 11 months old. She’s hitting. This isn’t ok even for a baby. She goes for the face every time, claws out, ready to maim. 

    I get that she’s a highly emotional being that has no real means to communicate, but she’s been given resources time and again that she refuses to use. I word it that way because she understands what I’m signing when I sign it. She equates it with eating. She can make the gestures I have taught her to make (except “more”, she JUST learned to clap a week ago). She just won’t do it. She immediately loses it. She eats every two hours and like clockwork at the 2 hour mark she flips out. She doesn’t even wait to see if I’m going to respond (or care that I’m already getting the food ready – which, until recently, requires me to lift my shirt). One minute she’s fine. The next she’s planking and throwing herself around and hitting and screaming. It’s ridiculous. There’s no warning. No request. Just immediate tantrum. I have no idea what to do. Redirecting and reassuring has not worked. She’s been doing this for a couple months now and unless I just let her joey onto my boob, she’s an angry, violent child when she’s hungry.

    I really really really need help with this. I’m considering how much it’d cost to have either Jo Frost come to my home or find a baby whisperer to help me figure this out. I’m pretty desperate. This little girl is nothing like my other children and I don’t expect her to be, but I do expect some semblance of humanity out of her and right now she seems more animal than human. Kinda like a feral cat honestly.

  22. Connie Jul 08 at 1:06 am Reply Reply

    I was wondering what your take is on the same topic as above but my son started screaming at about age 5 months. I feel all the same ways as posted above, such as I don’t want to say “no” and I don’t want to “punish” my son but I am at the end of my rope. I don’t know how to get my son to stop screaming especially during meal times. Either if he is eating or if the rest of the family is eating. I appreciate your response that it is a phase and normal for a baby at 9 months… but what about a 5, 6, 7, 8 month old :)

    Thanks for any advise! 
    Connie

  23. Robyn Sep 30 at 9:35 am Reply Reply

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I was starting to go a bit crazy thinking I had done something horribly wrong in the mothering department. Our 10 month old is doing exactly as you describe, especially at mealtimes, so I guess she is right on track, haha!

  24. Christopher Jan 06 at 5:38 pm Reply Reply

    Ok.. I’m a male who lives with a girlfriend, her sister, and (“unfortunately”, at times) sisters kid! Now I would simply like to know if this type of behavior is AT ALL normal for an 18 month year old child? Now doubling the age length and asking the same question.. is there anything that seems wrong with this picture or is it just me?

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