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 clueless about how to respond to whining, much less get a child to stop. In fact, 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 yet, so it's even harder than ever to figure out what all the fuss is about. As frustrating as it is for you, though, it's even more frustrating for your toddler. Part of dealing with the whining issue involves patience. The other part involves helping your child learn to communicate and removing triggers that lead to whining.

Managing the Unexpected 

When all is right with the world and things are unfolding as your toddler expects them to, he's a happy camper. When things are new and unexpected or aren't working out as he thinks they should, then watch out.

For example, if your child is playing and trying to get the ladder to go back on his firetruck, his mind has an expectation of how that should work out. When he actually performs that action and it doesn't go as expected, he's going to experience frustration. He 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 his head, and so there's a lot of confusion and frustration on a daily basis.

Eliminate Frustration When You Can

How many times is it going to take before he 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 him 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 blocks and scoop them around aimlessly. Now he's trying to build with them but can't do it without going into a full-on whine session. Try putting the blocks away for a few weeks and offer toys that are similar but match that particular skill level more closely. Nesting cups, the big plastic pop beads or other toys that stack still offers fine motor practice with less frustration and will lay the groundwork for the more difficult blocks.

Another option is to offer the blocks or other offending toys less often and only at times when your child is functioning at his best. It's likely that there are lots of new skills and experiences that are adding to his confusion and frustration right now. You may notice, too, that he's especially whiny when he's hungry or tired. So, choose to play with those toys when he's happy, fed and refreshed from a nap or a good night of sleep. When the whining starts, gently transition him 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.

When You Can't Eliminate Frustration, Console and Empathize

Sometimes, the object of agitation is something that is outside your control. If your toddler doesn't want to get into his car seat, for example, there's not much you can or should do about that. You can empathize and console, however, even as he whines. Let him know his feelings are valid: "I know you don't like being in the car seat right now." And share in his 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 the frustration because it relates to your child adjusting to the realities of life. He can't always get what he wants, after all. So long as his needs are met, you don't need to bend over backward to make everything a smooth, frustration-free experience for him. If he doesn't want apples for breakfast one day but ate them fine just yesterday, don't feel like you need to give in to the whining and offer him a variety of fruit until he finally accepts one. But you can still show sympathy and help your child learn to appropriately express how he feels about challenges.

Give Your Toddler Plenty of Language Examples 

Another cause of whining is your toddler's lack of effective communication. Again, he probably has an idea of what he wants but has no good way to tell you or show you. Up until this point in his life, he's communicated his every need to you by crying and that's what worked. Now he's moving away from crying. He is 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 him often and make sure you're also allowing moments for him to respond. 

Model Other Ways to Communicate

Words aren't the only way we communicate. Try pairing words with gestures for him so he'll 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. He might pick the sign up a little faster than the word and bring you some relief.

Nod or shake your head very obviously for him to indicate what he might want. "Do you want the truck?" If he gives you an angry whine, shake your head no while saying, "No truck." If he responds affirmatively, nod your head yes and say, "Yes, truck." You can also teach him to clap to say yes. 

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

Make Sure You Don't Reinforce the Whining

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

Keep working to give him appropriate communication skills. Offer toys that are at his 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 him work through his feelings, but don't accept whining as the default way to communicate when things aren't going his way.

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