I’m not sure what I was expecting from the toddler stage as a first-time mom, but I was convinced my relaxed infant would remain “calm.” Imagine my surprise when my toddler screamed at the top of his lungs for the first time while we were in the breezeway of our apartment complex. Not only was it loud but it echoed. It was scary and embarrassing.
Maybe I should have expected it since one of my nephews screamed in excitement throughout his toddler years, but I thought my toddler would be exempt. There’s nothing like being a new mom and thinking you know everything your child will do. As I came to find out, I had to learn that isn’t the case.
Like other parents, I turned to Google because I was determined to see if my son was OK or not. While the first few search results were positive, I saw other things that made me call the emergency hotline of my son’s pediatrician’s office. If you’ve found yourself wondering if screaming is normal for toddlers or not, we spoke with pediatrician Dr. Krupa Bhojani Playforth to help ease your concerns.
What are some reasons a toddler may scream?
“Toddlers scream for many reasons that fall under the umbrella of ‘strong emotions’—frustration or anger, certainly, but it can also indicate sensory overload, fatigue, fear, or even joy,” Dr. Playforth said. She also said, “sometimes it is also experimental—figuring out how to make the screaming sound and seeing what happens when they try it in different circumstances.” This might look like your child screaming in excitement when they see you or expressing their frustration because their sippy cup is empty.
Is screaming a part of toddler development?
Dr. Playforth wanted parents to know that “screaming is developmentally normal for toddlers, especially between ages 1-2.” Since toddlers are learning how to make sense of the world around them, it can be easy for them to rely on screaming. “Toddlers don’t always have the language capacity to communicate their emotions. Things are sometimes overwhelming or out of a toddler’s control,” Dr. Playforth said.
She recommended that parents discuss their toddler’s development and milestones with their pediatrician.“Toddlers who struggle to communicate due to receptive or expressive language delays, or who have other forms of pervasive developmental delay, sometimes scream more often than neurotypical toddlers,” Dr. Playforth said. However, screaming in general isn’t always a cause for alarm.
How can parents manage screaming toddlers?
“As we often say in medicine, check your own pulse first. Screams are designed to stop you in your tracks, even if they’re not necessarily intentional or manipulative,” said Dr. Playforth. She even admitted they put her on the edge which is something you may be familiar with.
I talk to my therapist about this often. Because a toddler’s screams can be jarring, Dr. Playforth said “it is hard not to respond emotionally. Taking that extra moment to collect yourself gives you the opportunity to consider what might be happening.” As a result, you can help your toddler navigate their big emotions at that moment.
As with anything toddlers do, Dr. Playforth wanted parents to remember their screams are not personal. She said, “learning to navigate these moments is as much a developmental milestone as learning to talk or walk. We need to support our children through these moments.”
Other ways you can navigate toddler screams:
- Get down to the child’s level
- Make eye contact
- Respond quietly
“Depending on your child’s personality and what else may be happening at that moment, the next step may be simply proving some close contact,” Dr. Playforth said. She personally finds her children often scream when they need connection. It’s something I can also attest to. When my son feels like he doesn’t have my attention, I can almost guarantee a temper tantrum that involves screaming will happen. If your child needs close contact, “this can be as simple as eye contact, holding a hand, or a hug,” Dr. Playforth said. “Changing the environment can be helpful too”. This may look like moving your child to a different room or going outside to allow them to have fresh air.
When is screaming a cause for concern?
Dr. Playforth recommended parents trust their instincts. “When you Google screaming, it’s common to find yourself spiraling,” she said. “While it’s true that screaming and general difficulty with communication can be indicators of underlying developmental issues, it rarely happens in isolation,” she continued. If there is a cause for concern, screaming is sometimes accompanied by other things like sensory processing concerns or language delays.
As she suggested above, it’s important for you to voice your concerns with your toddler’s pediatrician. Not only that but it’s also important for healthcare providers to listen. “No one knows your child as well as you do,” Dr. Playforth said.
Listen, I get it. Hearing a toddler scream multiple times per day can be a lot to deal with emotionally and mentally. As Dr. Playforth suggested, remembering that toddlers are not trying to personally make us feel miserable is key. Will you always remember that? Probably not. You’re human after all, and perfection isn’t the goal.
What matters is that you learn to understand your toddler and try to see the world through their eyes. Ironically, I’m able to identify with the concept that parents are able to pick up on our children’s cues the more we pay attention to them. Just think, one day your toddler will be able to say “I’m just so happy (or angry), mom!” That will be the day you realize they’ve reached another developmental milestone, and the days of their screaming will seem far behind.