When a child suddenly starts screaming uncontrollably in a high-pitched tone, it's only natural to think that something must be seriously wrong. Sometimes a high-pitched scream is just an expression of what the child is feeling at that moment or an attempt to get attention, but sometimes it can be a symptom of a medical problem.
Causes of Screaming
A child who starts screaming loudly might be scared or angry, although you can usually tell what made her feel that way if that is the case. Another possibility is that she's in pain from a toothache, headache or ear infection. According to "A Handbook for the Assessment of Children's Behaviors" by Williams and Hill, younger girls sometimes scream and flap their arms or freeze in place when surprised, but this type of scream shouldn't last for a long time. When you can't figure out what could be making your child scream and you can't find a way to comfort him, there could be another cause.
An infant with an extremely high-pitched cry could have a neurological problem. According to an article in the New York Times, psychologist Philip Zeskind of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute conducted a study on infants and found that most babies cry at a pitch of 450 to 600 cycles a second depending on how upset they are. Some of the babies in the study screamed at a much more intense pitch of 2,000 cycles a second. This sound is about four times as high-pitched as a normal cry, and sounds similar to a tea-pot shrieking. According to Dr. Zeskind, any baby who cries this way after the age of 1 month should be checked for neurological problems.
A child who has protracted screaming fits past the normal age for temper tantrums, or who screams for no apparent reason and cannot be calmed down, may have an autism spectrum disorder. According to "A Handbook for the Assessment of Children's Behaviors," autistic kids aren't necessarily trying to communicate anything when they scream. Some autistic kids seem to find it calming to scream for long periods of time. Other autistic kids may actually enjoy the sound.
There are a number of other possible causes for high-pitched shrieking or protracted screaming. According to the Patient Centered Guides website, high-pitched screaming can be a symptom of hydrocephalus or water on the brain. Other possibilities, according to Williams and Hill, include hypoglycemia, hallucinations, mucopolysaccharidoses and vertigo, although all of these possible causes are rare. Parents can often tell whether their child's scream sounds like a normal temper tantrum or a sign that something is wrong. If you suspect a problem, you should contact your child's doctor.