When Your Toddler Starts Whining

Laura Markham's picture

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Whining is very common as little ones head into their second year. Babies who are beginning to toddle but not speaking much whine as a means of communication. They don't know that we find it irritating, and they wouldn't have the ability to communicate differently even if they did. But not all of them whine, so we can learn from the ones that don't. Babies and toddlers whine more when:

  • They don't yet have enough words to reliably communicate. Unfortunately, the fact that he has occasionally used a word doesn't mean he has reliable access to it, especially when his emotions are running high. One way to address this before he can speak well is to teach him sign language. Studies show that babies who sign are less whiny and have fewer tantrums because they can better communicate their needs, and because expressing their feelings in words gives them an outlet. They also have higher IQs later in life, because it stretches the language capacity.

  • They're tired. Babies do go through spurts where they need extra sleep, so trying an earlier bedtime -- even laughably early, like 6:30pm -- for a couple of nights can show you the difference. She probably doesn't whine when she's well-rested after a nap.

  • They're frustrated. I'm always amazed that moms are told frustration is good for their kids because it's motivating. Too much frustration is as stressful to your child as it is to you.

    Maybe a little frustration is good for you, if it motivates you to take action to address the issue ("I really do have to clean out this closet, I can't find a thing!") But if you think about your child's life, he is constantly bombarded by frustrations: being told what to do, not being able to get the block tower to stand up, not getting to eat another cookie, getting pulled away from his toys so you can run an errand, having to wait for you to help him with something. Little ones are easily overwhelmed by frustration. If you wait to help him when he asks, you aren't teaching him anything useful. You are stressing him out.

    If you step in preemptively, you reduce the frustration, and therefore the tendency to whine. (And yes, expecting him to use words -- which are like a foreign language to him -- while he is already frustrated is expecting too much from him. Making him say please when he's so little and already having such a hard time controlling himself that he's whining is ill-advised. He has plenty of time to learn manners. Why add fuel to the fire? That's how parents trigger tantrums.)

  • They feel powerless. Babies stop whining once they learn they can act effectively to meet their own needs. Whining is partly an expression of powerlessness. If you show him that he can often get what he wants for himself and that he can count on you to quickly help him when he needs it, he will feel more powerful and will whine less. For instance, why shouldn't he use a stool to get a drink of water with a plastic cup at the bathroom sink anytime he wants one?

  • They feel bored. Babies whine when they feel out of sorts and can't figure out what to do with themselves. Why on earth would a baby ever be bored? The world is an amazing place for them to explore. But studies show that babies who watch TV often then have a hard time engaging in self-directed activity, so if he's watching TV at all, cutting it out might well eliminate the whining within a week, once he figures out what else to do with himself. (And remember that doctors advise no TV at all for kids under two because it affects brain development.)

    Some ideas for bored 15-month-olds:

    • Active kids love a small climbing gym indoors.
    • Remember to rotate his toys.
    • Anything using water, ice, or sand is fascinating for them. If you don't have a yard for a sandbox, you can make your own sandtable in a big pan or old baby bathtub. Keep the sand or water contained by keeping the play confined to a small baby pool (without the water.) Or just put some old towels on the floor with a bucket of water and a bunch of plastic containers of various sizes (and maybe some ice cubes.)
    • Or let him "mop" with a small mop. (You may even get a cleaner kitchen floor out of it!)
    • Tape white paper over the entire surface of a coffee table and let him draw.
    • Finger paints are wonderful but of course require supervision, better yet put him in the high chair and let him finger paint with pudding (you can even add food coloring to vanilla.)
    • A few large boxes is the best toy ever for this age.
  • They develop the habit of whining. Remember that what feeds the habit is the actual whining, not your meeting his needs when he expresses them. When you meet his needs -- or at least acknowledge what he feels -- he doesn't need to whine, so empathizing preemptively will help him break the whining habit. He babbles happily when he's happy, right? Well, when he's teething, tired, or frustrated, grousing about it makes him feel a little better, especially if you commiserate. He's communicating his emotions to you.

    So it's best if you intervene positively when he whines, so you interrupt the habit. First, recognize his feelings and give him a word to use instead of whining: "Oh, you sound frustrated/worn out/bothered/sad right now" or "You really wish you could have that scissors. It looks cool when Mommy uses it." Then teach him that he can do something to make him feel better, besides whining: "What could you do to feel better? Do you need a little cuddle?/some help from Mommy?/a drink of water?" or "You want the scissors, but this one isn't safe for babies. Here, do you want your own safe scissors?"

  • They're pushed beyond what they can handle. Just don't try to squeeze in another errand when he's hungry or tired. Even if he doesn't tantrum, you can be guaranteed that he'll start whining, and why feed that habit?

  • They need our attention 15-month-olds can play by themselves now, but they still need a tremendous amount of interaction with us. In fact, just when we see them walking around and acting like real people instead of babies, they often go through a clingy period because they feel like we're pushing them to separate and act grown up. This is always worse if there has been a real separation (for instance, Mom went on vacation without him, or he started daycare, or a new sibling was born.)

Bottom line, the more time and attention we give our kids in general, the less likely they are to whine when our attention does need to be divided. Be pro-active. Make sure that your child gets enough of your positive attention unprovoked, especially at the times of day when he's more likely to be whiny, such as the pre-dinner arsenic hour. Pre-empt whining by giving attention BEFORE he gets demanding. (Anyone who's had to ask a romantic partner "Do you love me?" knows that attention given after you ask can never really fill that yearning.) The secret is to take the initiative and give attention the child hasn't asked for, often, so he feels your connection. And of course it's particularly important to give attention when he shows the first sign of needing your emotional support, before that quick downhill slide.

Use your instincts, and ignore the messages you may hear about ignoring your little one when she whines. Being swamped by negative emotion sets kids back in learning to manage themselves. They need us to help them learn to manage their emotions, and the sooner we step in (when they start whining), the less likely they are to lose it.

The way kids learn to delay gratification and interact civilly is by becoming able to manage their emotions, and the way kids learn to manage their emotions is by having their parents respond to them lovingly and helpfully. That's how they get the message that they matter and can impact their world. That's how they learn not to panic and tantrum, and learn that frustration is bearable. So the more you empathize with your child and respond quickly to his needs, the less he will whine and tantrum, and the more cooperative he will be. He'll also be a more mature, happy, delightful child and teenager. I guarantee it!

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com