How to Respond to a Whiny Baby or Toddler

Toddler struggling and crying in high chair while drained woman tries to offer food at the dining table.

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Parents can quickly grow frustrated when faced with a whiny baby or toddler. They're often not sure how to respond to whining and how get a child to stop. And whining can seem near-constant with toddlers who are still developing verbal skills

This is one of those stages that can be very challenging for a parent or caregiver. Your child isn't talking (much) yet, so it's hard to figure out what they need. As frustrating as it is for you, though, it's even more frustrating for your toddler. Part of dealing with whining involves patience. The other part involves helping your child learn to communicate and removing triggers that lead to whining.

How Frustration Happens

When all is right with the world and things are unfolding as your toddler expects them to, they are usually happy and agreeable. When things are new and unexpected or aren't working out as they thought, then watch out.

For example, if your child is trying to get the ladder to go back on their toy firetruck, they have an expectation of how it should work out. When the action doesn't go as expected, they will experience frustration. They may throw a temper tantrum, whine, or throw the toy in anger. At this age, there are many things that will not match the model your child has in their head, so there's a lot of confusion and frustration.

Eliminate Frustration When You Can

How many times is it going to take before your child finally gets that firetruck ladder to reconnect as it should? A better question might be: How much more whining over this firetruck can you take?

If you've noticed that your child is using toys in new ways and those ways all seem to make them whiny and angry, then it's time to take some of those toys and put them away until his motor skills catch up. Maybe your toddler used to just mouth his interlocking blocks. Now, when they try to build with the blocks, they can't do it without going into a full-on whine session.

Try putting these interlocking blocks away for a few weeks. Offer toys that are similar, but match your child's skill level more closely. Nesting cups, big plastic pop beads, or other toys that stack, such as wooden blocks, still offer fine motor practice with less frustration. They will lay the groundwork for the more difficult blocks.

It's likely that there are lots of new skills and experiences that are adding to your child's confusion and frustration right now. Consider offering more frustrating toys less often, and only at times when your child is functioning at their best.

You may notice that your child is especially whiny when they are hungry or tired. So choose to play with those more challenging toys when your toddler is happy, fed, and refreshed from a nap or a good night of sleep. When the whining starts, gently transition to an activity that's calming, like reading a story together or playing outside.

There's a fine line between healthy frustration that leads to learning, and frustration overload that leads to both you and your child being agitated all the time.

Console and Empathize

Sometimes, the object of agitation is something that is outside your control. If your toddler doesn't want to get into their car seat, for example, there's not much you can or should do about that. You can empathize, however, even as they whine. Let them know their feelings are valid: "I know you don't like being in the car seat right now." And share in the misery: "I don't want to be in the car right now either."

There are also going to be times when you don't want to eliminate frustration, because it relates to your child adjusting to the realities of life. They can't always get what they want, after all. So long as basic needs are met, you don't need to bend over backward to make everything a smooth, frustration-free experience.

If your child doesn't want apples for breakfast today but ate them fine just yesterday, don't feel like you need to give in to the whining and offer a variety of fruit until your find one that's acceptable. But you can still show sympathy and help your child learn to appropriately express how they feel about challenges.

Teach Language Skills

Another cause of whining is your toddler's lack of language skills and vocabulary. Again, they probably have an idea of what they want, but no good way to tell or show you. Up to now, they have communicated every need by crying, and it worked. Now your child is moving away from crying. They are on the cusp of communication and as you can imagine, that is also frustrating.

Whining is the step between crying and language.

You can help shorten periods of whining by giving your toddler plenty of opportunities for language to develop. Talk to them often and make sure you're also allowing moments for them to respond.

Model Other Ways to Communicate

Words aren't the only way we communicate. Try pairing words with gestures so your child will whine less. Use the sign for "cup" or "toy" or make up your own sign and use it repeatedly with the word when you say it. Some kids pick up the sign a little faster than the word, bringing you some relief from whining.

Nod or shake your head very obviously to indicate what your child might want. "Do you want the truck?" If they give you an angry whine, shake your head no while saying, "No truck." If they respond affirmatively, nod your head yes and say, "Yes, truck." You can also teach them to clap to say yes. 

If your child already knows yes and no, that makes communication easier. Phrase your questions appropriately so you can figure out what they wants. Also, pretty soon you'll be able to say, "Tell me 'yes' or 'no.'" You'll also be able to instruct your toddler to communicate with words rather than whining, once verbal skills grow. 

Don't Reinforce Whining

Your baby is now a toddler. This is the trial-and-error period; toddlers try things many different ways and the things that work tend to stick with them. If you consistently give in to whining, it works. You're sure to get more whining. It's tough, because you don't want to ignore their needs, but you also don't want whining to become their primary way of getting needs met.

Keep working on appropriate communication skills. Offer toys that are at the appropriate developmental level and ease frustration when possible. Watch your own reactions, too, and make sure that you're not just caving in because the whining is getting to you.

Whining in Older Children

When an older child with more developed language skills engages in whining, it should be treated more like a behavior problem and remedied with discipline techniques like ignoring and timeout. Keep modeling appropriate ways to express displeasure with difficult situations and help your child work through their feelings, but don't accept whining as the default way to communicate when things aren't going their way.

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