Help me help a frustrated 8-month old to communicate better. . .
January 10, 2013 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Our daughter is eight-months old. She uses a blood-curdling scream whenever she is frustrated or wants something, which is usually her mom. The screams are so frequent--and so intense--that they have frayed the nerves of everyone else in the house. Any suggestions on how we might help her find a more effective way to express her frustration would be invaluable right now.

She had colic as an infant and it seemed to have resolved itself when she was four or five months old. The screaming, however, returned about six to eight weeks ago.

My wife stays at home with our daughter and has nursed her since she was born. We also have a son, who is almost four-years old, who requires a lot of our attention when he's not in school (which is only on weekday mornings). Regardless, our daughter gets lots of time and attention from us. Over the last few weeks, however, she has increasingly started using this intense scream whenever my wife is not in the same room as her and, often, when she is not holding her and giving her undivided attention. To put it mildly, she is emotionally sensitive.

As soon as she gets picked up, she stops screaming and crying. Clearly, however, she can't be held all day. She's usually OK to play on her own for the first hour or so after sleep, but once she gets a little tired, all bets are off. She's quite verbal and already standing on her own, so I'm having trouble distinguishing between actual distress and her attempts to "manipulate" us to get what she wants. Clearly, we don't want to leave her in distress, but I don't want to create a little Veruca Salt either.

My wife is meeting with one of the social workers/child development specialists at the local parenting center this week, so we've got that angle covered. I figure someone has actually dealt with this though and we need all the help we can get right now.
posted by ajr to Human Relations (30 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sucks when one's language skills aren't where they need to be. I've heard good things about teaching babies American Sign Language.

If she can make her needs known specifically it will make it easier for you and less frustrating for her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:48 AM on January 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Have you looked into learning/teaching baby sign language?
posted by mareli at 7:49 AM on January 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

Clearly, however, she can't be held all day.

My immediate thought here was that it might work to wear her (in a carrier or sling). Some children really love it and you actually can do it all day long.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:55 AM on January 10, 2013 [9 favorites]

Sign language is a wonderful tool for communicating with babies, particularly at mealtime, when they have your full attention and you can repeat the word and the sign when they reach for something specific.

However, the other side of this coin is that, if you respond to blood-curdling screams, she'll keep using blood-curdling screams. You're teaching her (by responding) that that's an appropriate way to get attention. As hard as it is, you'll have to learn to ignore the screams -- which is to say, look over, make sure she's not in any danger, then go back to what you were doing.

Eventually, she'll get tired of screaming, and she'll stop for a moment. Wait at least ten seconds (count to ten slowly, right?) for her to do something else -- pretty much anything else, a burp, a gurgle, a softer noise, whatever -- and respond to that. Basically give her the attention she wants when she asks for it in a reasonable way.

Will it be painful? Oh yes, lord yes. There is nothing worse than a baby screaming, and you knowing that you shouldn't respond, but everything in your body is willing you to respond. Actually, there is something worse: having to do it with two kids at once, twins, which is what I went through, and why I both sympathize and know what I'm talking about (after all, with twins, if they both want attention at the same time, you can only give it if you pick 'em both up, which can be problematic.)

Just make sure that you do respond when it is being asked for in a more reasonable way. If you just ignore the screaming, then continue to ignore when the screaming stops, then she's not getting the attention she wants, and she'll keep trying more and more things until she gets it. Better to reward the acceptable attention requests than drive her and her little baby mind to stumble across something even more annoying than the screaming.

As a companion to this, pick a phrase like "just a moment" (mine was "un momento"), and say it casually a few moments before you give her the attention. She will quickly learn that this means she's been heard and will soon get the attention, and over time you can stretch the pause between saying it and providing the attention into something reasonable (ie something that allows you to finish cutting the vegetables, or finish going to the bathroom, or finish folding the laundry.)

Either way, you'll get what you want -- either no more bloodcurdling screams, or (in the short term) one scream followed by waiting after you say "one moment" -- and she'll get what she wants, which is your attention.
posted by davejay at 8:00 AM on January 10, 2013 [34 favorites]

This sounds like perfectly normal separation anxiety to me --- mom leaves room, baby wants mom, baby does what she knows to get mom back. Your daughter is the right age for it.

And definitely try sign language. My son didn't really pick up sign language until he was 2, but my daughter knows one or two signs. She uses them inconsistently --- we think she uses them because she knows they make us do something (which is still a form of communication). She's almost 16 months old.
posted by zizzle at 8:01 AM on January 10, 2013

Seconding the baby sign language suggestions. My sons both used them and we avoided a lot of frustration and temper tantrums because of them.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:06 AM on January 10, 2013

Time...the second we taught our son how to say "baba" (bottle) whining decreased 90%. With the addition of "ny ny" (night night) for when he's sleepy, it has disappeared. Likewise, a toddler I used to watch became a lot more pleasant once he learned pointing, "uhoh" (pick that up, please) and "up". Night and day.

Some babies just hate not being able to communicate. You don't need to worry about spoiling just yet.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:09 AM on January 10, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm looking for answers as well. My granddaughter is 9 months old and has always wanted to be held. All the time. She is usually quite content as long as she is vertical. Since she started cruising she doesn't need to be held as much, but still requires a lot of attention that other babies we know do not.
The idea that screaming is used because it works sounds is an easy judgement to make. I know I let my kids scream when they were at a certain age, but my daughter believes in Dr. Sears and the idea that letting you kid scream is not psychologically good. This started so young (i.e.- immediately) that it seemed criminal to let her cry.
The screaming sounds so angry to me that it's scary, especially since she seems quite happy most of the time. It may be an inability to communicate, but it feels deeper than that to me.
My daughter does use a sling, but would like to have some time to herself.
My daughter has been using sign language for a few months, and the baby seems to understand at least some of it, but she hasn't started to use it yet.
posted by MtDewd at 8:15 AM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: She's usually OK to play on her own for the first hour or so after sleep, but once she gets a little tired, all bets are off.

My child would never have tolerated playing by herself at eight months, just as a data point.

Have you been practicing your inane chatter? By which I mean, my daughter didn't really seem to distinguish between 'one on one' talking and narration of everything I did.

I used to put her in her chair/bouncer/on the floor and just describe everything I was doing. If you're doing laundry, put your girl on the bed and describe the colors. When cooking, explain the process, etc.
posted by madajb at 8:25 AM on January 10, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: My wife's an early childhood consultant, we have a kid, I've been paying close attention to the lessons that she's taught me about our daughter. Here's what I've learned: It's good to start introducing the signs now, but an eight month old generally doesn't have the gross motor skills to use them and often doesn't have the cognitive inclination to use expressive language beyond shrieks.

Honestly, your daughter's probably in one of those odd development spaces and there's not much you can do except bear it for a few weeks until it gradually goes away; she has to react to displeasure in some manner and she doesn't have many options. She's not able cognitively to control the scope of those reactions, so conditioning has two possible outcomes-- it won't work, or if it's applied severely enough, it will affect her appraisal of the world around her negatively. You can't condition/discipline an individual who doesn't grasp cause-and-effect except through base negative emotions like fear or pain. She doesn't understand rewards because the only thing she wants is to feel safe, and right now she only feels safe with mom around. She's going to get braver, less insular and more curious about the world around her, and it'll happen quickly.

There are a bunch of common, unpleasant milestones in development and they all melt away as the kid masters a skill and works on something else. Honestly, one of the approaches that you try is going to appear to work, but it will have nothing to do with your attempts at correction. Your daughter's going to move from this stage relatively quickly and it will just be a dim, unpleasant memory no matter what you. I know what you're going through, it's awful. The only thing that's going to fix it is time, even if it's hard to accept when you're all depleted.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:25 AM on January 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

Thirding the baby sign language suggestions.

Those little buggers have complete thoughts in their heads and no way to express them because their mouths don't work yet. Of course it's frustrating. A few simple hand gestures and it's like you're Tarzan communicating with the apes.
posted by three blind mice at 8:27 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just want to add that your daughter being able to play on her own for an hour at 8 MONTHS is already very impressive and far beyond what most toddlers can even come close to doing. I think she is yelling for attention because its what she needs right now. You say she is already standing up? The point (weeks to months) right before babies learn to walk can be rough as its a huge developmental step for them and you might remember that she likely needed you/mom a lot more during similar previous developmental steps such as crawling. I think the walking one feels harder because its spaced farther along from the earlier milestones and the baby may have appeared more "independent" in the last month or two.

As with all things baby. This too shall pass.
posted by saradarlin at 8:38 AM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

As hard as it is, you'll have to learn to ignore the screams -- no, there's just no need, as other answers attest. Your 8mo is not going to be acting like an 8mo at 14mo. This is just [see answer provided by Mayor Curley]

+1 that an hour of solitary play is maybe not the norm and +1 that some sort of soft carrier would work well here.

The usual sort of drugstore earplug will help in desperate times when the kid is content but just generally loud; baby will still be audible, but not enragingly so.
posted by kmennie at 8:42 AM on January 10, 2013

My immediate thought here was that it might work to wear her (in a carrier or sling). Some children really love it and you actually can do it all day long.

Our little one is only 9 pounds and my lower back would already beg to differ. Different sling types impact differently but each one takes its toll. I'd also be skeptical that a child with the drive to play independently for an hour is going to tolerate a sling for that long. Maybe once she's done with the independent/hands-on stuff, sure. But you don't want to encourage a lot of napping/passivity (and your sciatica) by keeping her in it when she's willing to be playing.

If you'll forgive me for extrapolating from our dog training experiences, I'd focus on encouraging an alternative behavior and derailing this one. If you can predict when it's likely to happen and are content to just stop the screams then you just need to substitute one attention-getter for another.

When you know this will happen, set it up to occur but step in before the scream. Is she coordinated enough to clap at all effectively? Help her clap her hands together and then pick her up and haul her around on your hip for a few minutes. Lather rinse repeat.
posted by phearlez at 8:43 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

nthing baby sign language - if you only get please, eat, drink, toilet you will save yourself and your child lots of frustration.

When your kids are 6 and 7 and start doing the potty dance - where they don't want to stop what they're doing but also really have to go - for some reason they seem to respond much better to a subtle sign that to the spoken question or directive.
posted by ElGuapo at 8:57 AM on January 10, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses. Just some points of clarification. We have been teaching her a few signs, but she hasn't made any attempt to employ them on her own yet. She loved the carrier and sling when she was smaller, but she's too big for it now.

And when I said that she played on her own for an hour or so, that wasn't quite accurate. She is never left alone for more than a few minutes and we are usually there and interacting with her. It's only that first hour or so that she can tolerate her mom walking away to do something else for a few minutes.

I get that this is part of her development and that it's temporary, but it's been going on for weeks and weeks now. It's just really, really hard on her and, as a result, all of us. Seems to be something a little more intense, as MtDewd mentioned.
posted by ajr at 8:59 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

What gets reward, gets repeated. Don't respond, at all, to the scream. Every time you respond to it, you reinforce it. 4 year old can say "Mama", or some other trigger, and you can demo a prompt response. Or give Baby a new noise-making toy, and respond promptly to the noise. The positive part is that Baby learned something cool - I make this noise and get a response; I can affect my world! and you want to let Baby keep affecting her world, but in a less painful manner.
posted by theora55 at 9:03 AM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are definitely carriers that will work for a kid her age/size. I have an ergo that I started using shortly after my son was a year old and we still use it occasionally and he's 27 months now.
posted by chiababe at 9:05 AM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Around 9 months we had a fit of screaming at every diaper change. I found that mirroring was *really* useful (in fact, a breakthrough) at this point. That is, I would say "Speck is mad! She doesn't want to be on the changing table! She is mad and sad and thinks ACM doesn't understand! She wants to be somewhere else; she is mad about this, and about the cold wipe . . . blah blah." For a kid who desperately wants to communicate, hearing that she's been heard is *huge* -- for us, it basically broke the cycle entirely. I did follow up with "ACM will make this as quick as possible, because Speck doesn't like it and we'd both be happier going back downstairs. Speck doesn't want a diaper rash, so this has to happen." (Although mirroring followed by "but" is less effective.) But really, it was just my translation that captured her attention, and she just stared at me for the rest of the change.

Anyway, it's always hard to know what will work, so maybe the "ignore all screaming" behavior mod approach is right, but redirecting into more productive outlets is also good, and you'll find that letting your kids know they've been heard pays off at all ages, so I recommend adding this approach to your quiver. Happiest Toddler on the Block is good overall as a framework for communications and keeping conflicts to a minimum.
posted by acm at 9:10 AM on January 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

Ergos are great if it's not too hard on your wife. Carriers are not all alike and some like the bjorn are not great at higher weights.

If you have the money to hire help, do so. You'll get through this eventually, I promise.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:09 AM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: (This wall of text is the result of coping with a very colicky baby and difficult circumstances. I thought about editing or deleting it or making it small but I made it longer in trying to edit. It may not be at all helpful, but I figure in the event there is anything soothing or helpful in my random ruminations on the nature of babies screaming and what to do about it, all of us who have coped/will cope with it could use any help we can get! All yee who do not like giant walls of text may avert your eyes now!)

I think when a baby is screaming the pain is real. I used meditation to help me cope with my son's colic and subsequent difficulties. For me, I believe his discomfort was very related to my own issues, our difficult circumstances, and also likely to gut and immune system difficulties.

Since babies can't tell us, and science is a bit sketchy still on how to identify what is going on with babies, ultimately we all have to use best guesses of what is wrong and what to do about it. Some amount of screaming, crying, and discomfort is part of being human in a human body. That doesn't mean it's not real, but our bodies do learn how to regulate the innate "discomfort" of being in a body and having urges for things we can't gratify at any given moment. Other types of discomfort are actually part of poor health within the body. And what's more, I believe, baby humans are developing "will". Desires for things that may or may not be considered health needs but that are important for that persons development. Some babies "need" to be held a lot. Some babies "need" to express themselves vocally. Some babies "need" comforting sounds or pleasant colors. All animals with the ability to move will move toward things they feel they need. Some species, these instincts are spot on for survival purposes, wheras for humans-- well we're more of a mess in terms of our instincts matching our actual needs. (And in terms of the degree of care needed to make it to adulthood.)

My theory is, that when the immune/other bodily systems are not very strong, babies will need to be held more because the physical proximity to a functional system helps to regulate the developing system. This is sort of the principle of kangaroo care in general and I think it's true in older children and adults as well. A healthy human can regulate their own bodily systems but a weakened system may literally be craving the physical proximity to help regulate itself.

Here's where it gets murky. Training is part of how the system strengthens. And by that I mean, time AWAY from that support so the system gets practice doing things on it's own, while having access to the needed to support to rebuild after the "training". Babies do need self play time, but for some that may be a very minimal amount.

But separation anxiety could also be related to a chaotic circumstance in you, your spouse, or immediate ancestors environment. Were their dangerous circumstances in any of you or your families pasts? Abuse, food scarcity, violence, emotionally unavailable parents, alcoholism, etc? Increased anxiety can be caused by many different things, but the instinct to stay close to a parent is pretty rooted in good survival instinct if a being senses there might be danger or a tendency for the parents to abandon the child's emotional needs without the stimulous of the infant/child "reminding" the parent to care for them. If the new environment is safe, in order for a person with deep rooted fears, you just have to work extra hard with the child/person to show them the environment is reliable and safe and trust will build.

Forcing a baby to sit by themselves while they scream until they just stop screaming is a pretty controversial parenting technique that I have not seen very many actual parenting experts who work in the field as professionals really advocate.

The good news is that I know many parents with screamers and of all that I know, they all managed to get through those years no matter what technique they used. That doesn't mean any technique is as good as the other, but, something to keep in mind is that all humans who survived to reproduce survived thousands upon thousands of years of parents who had no idea what to do with screaming babies. Now, with modern medicine, we can better address any real medical emergencies, and the rest, well we're all kind of guessing a bit, even among the "experts".

My instincts are to respond to emotional outbursts and to provide an amount of intimacy that my child seems to indicate they need while working out what is realistic for me to provide. I.e. you literally can't hold an eight month old indefinately nor should you. I did use a carrier for my son, but I do have back problems as a result.. so. In any case; they do need time on the floor to practice crawling,standing, playing and learning to explore their world.

So-- you may not be into spiritual woo, but I do think that human's have an "emotional self" if you will. You feel there is something intense-- i.e. some sort of deep emotion that is potentially about more than just mommy walking away for a minute. Depending on your spiritual bent, I would go with that gut instinct and explore it. Is there something deeper? What do you think it is? Can you do some prayer/meditation on what that might be and sort of call into yourself the emotional resources to provide emotional security to the depth of this emotional(or physical) issue? Sometimes when I do meditations like this, it helps me feel more secure about providing the right kind of support and no matter what that is of benefit to the child involved. Were there emotional issues during the pregnancy? Were there emotional issues in you or your spouses past that you think could part of your child's experience now? Or could your child be processing something innate to them about what it means to be alive and alone in the world as a human?

Resolving your worries in yourself, will help you have a more secure response to your child's expressions. Ultimately no matter what the problem is, secure loving and consistant support from you is the solution. As long as you know you are doing all that you can do, you will just have to relax and remain a calm provider as much as possible through the bumps.

You will never know for sure what the source of this discomfort is, but you can do your best guessing and when you hold and respond to your child, try to give them access to the kind of emotional support you think they are seeking. In truth, life is very painful. Your job is not to erase that reality, but to help your child grow the strength to face and cope with life's pain in order to have enjoyment and fulfilment and experience the good things that can be had here. You can hold on the knowledge there are good things worth experiencing despite life's pain even when your baby/child can't see that. Let them cry, and simply offer comfort and remind yourself that life is worth living, and good things are to come.

And within yourself-- maintain that you will be there as a sanctuary to face life's pain and overcome it wherever possible. Know that sometimes when you have to put the baby down, you just do. You will have to relax and know the child will cry and you will pick the child up/play with the child again when you are finished with doing the needed things that must be done. As parents, we have to ask our children to take on some amount of "work" of living. For a baby, that simply means enduring waiting or holding on through mommy and daddy doing the things they need to do to make survival possible. It might be soothing for you to work in the concept of downtime/relaxation for yourself as part of your survival needs. You literally can make yourself sick by ignoring such needs in yourself. You are NOT abandoning your child because you need to take a warm bath or just sit in quiet for a few minutes. You need to replenish yourself so you can be a strong emotionally healthy provider.

Be proud of her when she makes it through waiting for you to be done. Baby screams raise blood pressure (so I have read) and literally unsettle parents in a way little else can. You will need to do whatever relaxes and rebuilds you so you can keep your strength and peace of mind. Give each other breaks-- take nice baths, drinks lot's of water and eat a good diet, get exercise, go for walks, and try to get as much solid sleep as possible. Also, if you haven't already you might try an elimination diet for your wife to eliminate any food allergy sources of the discomfort. (I presume you have already double checked there are no health sources of the problem with your doctor. Unusual amounts of screaming might be worth mentioning to your doctor if it keeps persisting.) You can also get some air filters and try to eliminate any air born allegens in the home. Allergic symptoms can wind up increasing anxiety and irritability like no other. You and your spouse should offer whatever comfort to each other you can because the better shape you're in, the better parents you can be as your child overcomes this bump.

This too shall pass. You will probably feel wretched until it does, but you will get through it.

Also as the young-rope rider mentions-- hire help if possible. I think all families should have more help because child rearing can be very overwhelming. The good news is that these past few weeks have likely sparked your frazzled nerves from coping with the colick for many months, while this current issue will likely resolve itself fairly quickly without doing anything on your part (and I'm writing way too much for a temporary situation, but man do I relate to how overwhelming these situations can be!).
posted by xarnop at 10:43 AM on January 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

We have been teaching her a few signs, but she hasn't made any attempt to employ them on her own yet.

That's fully expected, and shouldn't dissuade you from continuing to use the signs as consistently as you use language. As she develops, she'll develop the ability to use signs, so better to establish the patterns for yourself now so that she will start using them as soon as she can.

By way of comparison, when my kids would obviously hurt themselves (when still pre-verbal), I always pointed to the wound or bump and said, clearly and slowly, "pain" (after making sure they were okay, of course.) I did this for well over a year before one of my kids started crying, and I asked what was wrong, and she pointed to her arm (which wasn't visibly injured) and said "pain." It was her first word.
posted by davejay at 11:01 AM on January 10, 2013

Dumb question, maybe, but is she teething? My 1-year-old has this very particular shriek that I know means teething.
posted by sutel at 11:14 AM on January 10, 2013

I carry my 28-pound toddler around in a Beco Gemini, and it is not painful. So a different carrier may help.

My kid went through crazy separation anxiety at that age; he would not play by himself for one minute, and it was exhausting and I thought I might die of parenting.

I didn't. He grew out of it.

Nthing others that at this stage in development there's not really "manipulating"; it's "actual distress." It's too early to worry about spoiling. Mayor Curley and the young rope-rider are spot-on.
posted by purpleclover at 11:22 AM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I feel that a lot of advice so far needs to be countered with current learnings on the value of responsive parenting. The theory that by responding to a crying child you will just reinforce their crying for your attention is seriously antiquated. Like, straight out of the 50s. I can't understand why this advice is still being given. Failing to respond won't make the kid 'realise that screaming for attention isn't an appropriate way to ask for her needs to be attended to'.

I understand how difficult this can be. Really I do. We have twins. As many others have suggested, carriers are a great idea (the ergo is my pick), sign language also. But in my experience, the best way to deal with separation anxiety is to give that child the time that they need, plus a bit more. When they are feeling nice and secure they will be ready to do their own thing a bit. The more you give that child attention and a secure base, the happier they will be to explore their own world.
posted by bingoes at 11:25 AM on January 10, 2013 [6 favorites]

When they are feeling nice and secure they will be ready to do their own thing a bit. The more you give that child attention and a secure base, the happier they will be to explore their own world.

Additionally, the best way to raise a self-centered "Veruca Salt" is to teach from a young age that the only person who can be relied upon for comfort and safety is one's self. Leaving an eight month old to "cry it out" instead of trying to address her concerns is exactly the opposite of teaching consideration and empathy.

The conditioning responses here might be appropriate for a child twice the age of the one in question. But they're not going to have the desired effect on an actual infant.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:18 PM on January 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

What about trying to pick her up and hold her every 45 minutes, so that she gets a cuddle break before she starts freaking out. That way you could reassure her that you're there and that she can be close and comforted, and so perhaps reset her internal clock. Then she could go back down for some fun playtime.
posted by lab.beetle at 1:24 PM on January 10, 2013

Best answer: I read this Dr Sears article after I had my baby and it made a lot of sense to me. Mine was especially intense, her cries were louder, and in a room full of babies she was the only one that could not stand to crawl around on the floor with the other babies (she wanted to be held). In retrospect, I think Dr Sears is right about those kinds of babies needing a lot more touch and closeness, for whatever reason. That's her personality--we didn't "make" her that way from our parenting style and the more you accept it and help her feel secure, the better. That said, I had a therapist once who really got it and worked with other parents around this and it's really important that you take care of yourselves too so that you're not burned out. Hopefully you can find something that works for you like an hour to exercise a day or a parent group to talk about things. Also I was trying to be so low tech but now I wish I had known about Ergos and Moby wraps or had thought about a door jumper or something like that. Also good if she can get attached to something like a cozy blanket or stuffed animal but some kids never take to that. Mine didn't but my nephews are still crazy about theirs--worth a try.
posted by biscuits at 8:44 AM on January 11, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks biscuits. That article definitely describes our little girl and its perspective offers some much-needed optimism. This too shall pass. . .
posted by ajr at 1:33 PM on January 11, 2013

Response by poster: And xarnop thanks for the big block of text. It had lots of helpful insights that are applicable to our circumstances.
posted by ajr at 1:35 PM on January 11, 2013

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