What's Going On?

Q Dear Dr. Honig: I have a baby in my program who never seems to calm down. He often runs down the hall. He seems happy but screams at the top of his lungs. What's going on?

A Muscle Control Grows Slowly

Babies start out in life with the ability to control few of their muscles. Fortunately, at birth they have lots of useful muscular reflexes, such as sneezing, yawning, and sucking, which do not require voluntary control of muscles. The earliest voluntary motoric abilities arise during the first weeks. Babies learn to crane their necks, turn their heads, and seek the face of the teacher in whose arms they are snuggled as she coos and calls their names. Ability to control other muscles grows slowly over the next two years. Usually this sequence moves from head to feet (technically referred to as "cephalocaudal development"). For example, the hands are fisted and closed at birth. At around 4 months, a baby will be able to open those hands and swipe at an overhead mobile. As he nears 1 year, his hand muscles will show even more dexterity, and he will be able to pick up small bits of cereal with his thumb and forefinger. Yet, he still isn't able to use leg muscles for toddling, and controlling the production of sounds and words involves the coordination of a large number of different muscles. Developing this coordination can take even longer for some young children.

Understanding the Needs of Others

Besides learning to control voice box muscles, young children struggle during the early years to figure out how their voices and actions affect others. This is especially difficult during the infant/toddler years. A child may scream loudly when a peer grabs his special toy, rather than use a calm, well-modulated voice and firmly request that his peer return it right away. Consider a preschooler in a restaurant: he may embarrass his parents by protesting very loudly that he does not want sauce on top of his "pisgetti." If service is delayed and he is hungry, tired, or frustrated, he may cry very loudly, regardless of whether others are trying to dine peacefully at nearby tables. Young children often have trouble taking into account how others feel. A toddler finds it hard to whisper. He may exclaim quite loudly to his dad that a lady passing by on the street has a "funny-looking hat."

Learning Self-Control

It takes years to develop emotional understanding and emotional self-control. A toddler who has been brought up with kindness may well want to help a peer who fusses and cries in childcare. But instead of bringing that peer's teddy bear or blanket over to him, the toddler may bring his own comfort "lovey" as a helpful gesture. Understanding the exact needs of others is quite a slow process.

Another difference is the degree to which young children exhibit emotionality. Some babies are slow to warm up, cautious and low-key in their emotional approaches and responses. Others are extremely intense in their reactions. If their tummies feel the least bit hungry, they yowl, rather than whimper. A teacher with a baby who has trouble controlling the volume of happy screams, may notice that the baby also cries loudly when upset. A baby who screams with exuberance and runs a great deal in the playroom needs a lot of adult understanding. The teacher will need lots of patience in helping this baby learn how to modulate volume.

How You Can Help

Teachers are powerful models for children. When a baby has difficulty modulating volume, he needs his teacher to speak in slow, musical tones. Through body language, the teacher can also show him how to move slowly. Here are some additional strategies you can use:

  • Rather than let a baby run aimlessly, make sure that you do exercises with him, such as "angels in the snow." In this game, a baby stretches out his arms wide while lying down. He also stretches his legs fer apart. Thus, the baby learns to move his muscles into graceful and healthful postures.
  • Talk about how he can control the way he expresses his happiness. He can grin, he can tell the teacher how happy he is, or he can laugh out loud. Screaming, however, is different. It hurts people's ears. Indicate that you love it when he tells you he is feeling happy. But yelling does not feel good for the others in the classroom. Teachers may have to repeatedly share these ideas with babies, as they redirect a little one's behaviors toward more self-control in modulating the intensity of their sounds.


How to Calm An Exuberant Baby

It is important to understand that babies differ in temperament. Some are sensationally exuberant and loud, while others are withdrawn and quiet Babies also differ in tempo and style. Some eat with gusto, while others deliberately scoop a bit of cereal onto a spoon and slowly munch their food. Helping a baby learn to modulate voice tones means first finding out whether this baby's emotional responses are frequently intense. If so, use a more laid back, soothing style during interactions. Move more slowly and talk in a low, musical voice, rather than a fast bright voice. Here are some additional calming techniques:

  • While diapering the baby, use long palmar strokes on her body. Talk to the baby on the diapering table with low cooing tones and soothing words.
  • Use massage during the day to help a high-strung baby relax body muscles. A few minutes of massage on the baby's back and arms a few times a day helps the baby's muscles relax.
  • Sing songs in a low key. Do not play loud, fast-paced music for this baby. He does not need to be stimulated more, but rather needs help calming down. Play softer songs and lullabies. Encourage the baby to sway and murmur with lullaby music.
  • Be sure to praise the baby when he uses lower tones, words, and even garbled sounds to indicate joy, rather than screaming his feelings. Keep giving the baby words to express his feelings. Words such as mad, sad, and happy are easy for toddlers. Smile and nod appreciatively when the baby shows you glee by grinning.