The whines of a baby or toddler can sound like nails on a chalkboard to parents. They can be incessant and sometimes infuriating, but it’s important to realize that these high-pitched, singsong protests actually serve a purpose as a mode of communication.
Understanding the causes of whining can help to mitigate the frustration you and your baby feel. So next time your little one starts to whimper or wail, take a moment to evaluate the situation. You may be able to stop the whining, solve the problem, and save your sanity.
Here’s what you need to know.
Whining can be considered the transition between crying and verbal complaining. This shift often happens as a baby moves from infancy to toddlerhood.
Whining is a baby’s means of communication, and their way of expressing frustration over what they perceive as an undesirable outcome or an unpleasant situation. And while it may be grating on a parent’s ears, it’s an important step as a child learns to articulate specific needs.
Crying serves a newborn well; it motivates mom or ad to investigate the source of baby’s angst. As an infant matures and becomes more socially aware, they will begin to realize the power of their voice and the influence of their whining.
Decoding the meaning behind a whine can be a difficult task for parents. In time — and through the power of deduction — you will learn to distinguish the 911 screeches of distress from the mild-mannered moans. Here are some of the most common reasons a baby will whine.
Most 4-month-old babies require breast milk or formula every 3 to 5 hours. During growth spurts, however, they might want more frequent feedings or additional ounces. If your baby is whining and showing hunger cues, offer the breast or bottle — they might just need a top-off.
Likewise, a baby that has graduated to solids, might want additional food during or in between meals. Some research has linked weaning from the breast to an uptick in whining, so if your baby seems agitated, consider adjusting mealtime portions or providing healthy snacks.
Babies (and adults, to be honest) thrive on a regular sleep routine. When this regimen is interrupted, a wee one can become irritable.
If your schedule is off, or your tired tot didn’t get sufficient Zzz’s at night, try to encourage restful relaxation. Being overtired can further fuel the cycle; holding and quietly cuddling your baby can abate their exhaustion-fueled frustration.
A baby needs to be changed regularly. If they have soiled a diaper, and are feeling wet or uncomfortable, they may become fussy and upset.
One of the first and easiest things you can do to respond to a baby’s whining is check their diaper. You’ll know right away if that’s the source of their distress.
Even babies get bored with the same old surroundings. A change of scenery can do a cranky little one (and their weary) parents some good. Better yet, some fresh air can work wonders to reset a baby’s mood.
Similarly, if your munchkin seems tired of their regular toys, you can try rotating items every couple of weeks to refresh their playtime routine.
A baby is constantly learning and mastering new skills. This can be simultaneously exhilarating and exasperating for them.
As their confidence increases, a baby wants to become more independent. Unfortunately, an infant or newly minted toddler will soon discover that they’re not always able to do the things they want — like rummage through cabinets or put tiny items in their mouth. Likewise, they may work themselves into a tizzy if they’re unable to figure out the basic mechanics of a toy.
When a baby tries to do something, and the outcome they want is different than the outcome they get, they will find a way to express their dissatisfaction through whining.
There are a host of tummy troubles that could cause your baby to whine.
A little one’s digestive system is still developing, so a gas pocket can cause major discomfort. (You’d complain too if you couldn’t get that burp out!).
If your baby’s fussiness seems to align with the end of a feeding, see if a quick burping session offers some relief. If they still seem uncomfortable, try some tummy time, as gentle pressure on the belly can help with gas pains.
If your baby moans during feedings, they could be suffering from acid reflux. This is when the stomach’s content comes back up into the esophagus, causing a burning sensation. If you suspect this is the cause of your baby’s whining, talk to your pediatrician.
Pain or sickness
A baby is unable to tell you that they pinched their tiny fingertip in a toy or that their ear is aching — and even if they could, these pains would likely elicit tears anyway.
If you’re unable to quell a baby’s fussing, be sure to do your due diligence — take their temperature, scan their skin for redness or rashes, check their fingers and toes for hair tourniquets, and look inside their mouth to see if a teeny tooth is breaking through the gum.
When all else fails, give your little one extra comfort and healing kisses. If the whining continues or escalates and they seem distressed, consider contacting your pediatrician.
While the many wonders of the big and bright world can engage and entertain your mini, they can also be overstimulating. It’s easy for a baby to get overwhelmed by loud noises and excessive activity.
If your sweetheart seems out of sorts, try to calm the chaos. Dim lights, hush the house, and keep things as peaceful as possible.
It’s common for babies to whine or even cry in their sleep. Infants have shorter sleep cycles, which can cause them to wake more frequently. Ideally, you want your little one to self-soothe and get back to sleep on their own, so wait a few minutes before intervening.
Desire for attention
You can’t spoil a newborn, but as an infant develops and approaches the 12-month mark, their sense of self and social awareness increases. They might become accustomed to a parent’s Pavlovian response to crying and whining. This is a good thing — your prompt attention lets your baby know that they can depend on you.
Nevertheless, the whines of an attention-seeking baby can seem never-ending. You might feel like you’re being pulled in a million different directions — especially if you have other kids to tend to.
It’s okay to let a finicky baby fuss. You are one person, after all, and your energy and efforts will have to be divided from time to time. Let your cranky cutie know you love them and that you’ll help them as soon as you can.
Whining might not always inspire compassion, but it’s important to remember that these crying complaints are a signal that your baby requires your help to meet a need or want. Efficiently identifying the issue at hand can allow you to address the cause and put a stop to the whining faster.
Furthermore, showing kindness and affection will reinforce your unconditional love. Here are a few ways you can take action when your baby is audibly upset.
Go through the checklist
More often than not, there’s a good reason for your baby’s lamenting. Go through your mental checklist of common causes listed above.
Is their diaper dirty? Is it lunchtime? Did they miss a nap? Are they bored in the playpen or frustrated with a toy? Using a simple process of deduction will usually help you find the right answer.
If you’re having trouble finding the source of their grievance, watch and learn as they interact with the environment around them. It might be something totally random getting their goat — babies can be persnickety like that.
Keep your cool
When whining lasts throughout the day — and it sometimes will — it can be downright maddening for parents. So before you do anything, take a beat and a breath and center yourself. Keeping your cool is key to modeling good behavior.
Try some soothing tactics
Depending on your baby’s age, you can try a few innately soothing activities to mellow out their mood.
For younger infants, swaddling, rocking, using white noise, and offering a pacifier can help put them in a calmer state of mind.
Older infants and toddlers might benefit from a walk outside or a situational change.
Respond and use verbal cues
Babies usually start babbling around 6 months of age. They have a lot to say, and while it might sound like gibberish to you, there is often emotion and intention behind their adorably incoherent jargon.
Help encourage your little one’s linguistic development by talking through situations and using basic vocabulary in your day-to-day interactions.
Whenever possible, show your baby a tangible item as you say the corresponding word or short phrase. Establishing the connections between the word “play” and a toy or “hunger” and a bottle will help drive your point home.
Nod your head while saying “yes,” and shake it when you say “no,” to establish these meaningful statements. Around 6 months of age, many babies will understand these words, so start asking “yes or no” questions. You might be surprised when, one day, your baby emphatically answers.
Baby or toddler sign language provides another communication tool for you and your little one. Consider signing common words and phrases as you say them to your baby — “more,” “all gone,” “water,” etc.
Your baby can benefit from seeing these simple gestures as early as 6 months of age. What’s more, they often gain the ability to complete the physical sign before they’re able to say the actual word. This can help them get their needs met faster and eliminate whining.
You can’t always make your baby happy. There are plenty of occasions when your child will have to make do with a situation they feel is less than ideal.
A baby gate may prevent them from freely exploring. They might be angry about being confined to a car seat during a long ride. In these instances, there will be whining — and that’s okay.
Check to make sure your baby is safe; as long as they’re physically okay, a little fussing is absolutely fine. You can verbally empathize with their frustration, but they’ll learn that some things aren’t negotiable.
The fussy infant phase will eventually pass. But if you’re assuming the whining will wind down when your babe enters toddlerhood, think again. Rather, your child may enter an even more demanding phase, and the whining may worsen.
As a toddler gets a taste of independence, they will find themselves at odds with their caregivers more than ever. They will test their limits and try new things — some outcomes will be better than others. But when things don’t go their way? Let the tantrums and whining commence.
Encourage positive communication
Your toddler is still learning to effectively communicate. They may have more words, but the ability to string them together to express a cohesive thought is still a ways away.
You can encourage a child’s linguistic skills by speaking clearly and thoughtfully to them even at a young age. Furthermore, you can teach them to communicate in other nonverbal ways. Continue to use physical cues and sign language when possible.
By the time they reach 3 years of age, a typical toddler will have about 1,000 words and can speak in three- or four-word sentences.
If your toddler is not hitting certain developmental milestones, you might want to talk to your doctor.
While speech and language delays can be totally normal, a lack of verbal and nonverbal communication can also be a sign of autism spectrum disorder. Toddlers on the spectrum may whine to express frustration over their inability to understand language or express themselves.
Limit reactions to whining
A toddler is a smart and crafty creature. They quickly learn how to elicit the exact response they want from you. This is why it’s important to limit your reaction to whining.
Instead of immediately caving in to a toddler’s complaints, swiftly and efficiently address the underlying issue without excessive emotion, and model a more appropriate reaction.
For example if your tyke is whining about wanting a snack, provide one and talk through better methods to requesting snacks (even if they can’t quite talk back). This is one way you can give a child the tools they need to appropriately express themselves.
Whining goes with the infant- and toddler-rearing territory. It’s a child’s early way of letting you know they have encountered a problem they can’t solve on their own, and it’s how little ones express themselves before they can actually explain themselves.
These woeful whimpers can be trying for parents, but with some empathy, encouragement, and efficient action, you can help your tot develop the skills to effectively communicate without resorting to whining. Good luck!