Ask the Doctor - Answers to your Parenting Questions

15 Month Old Whines Nonstop

DS is a very typical 15 (almost 16) month old. He's very physical, and gets frustrated easily when something doesn't go as he wants after the first few times of trying. The problem is his vocabulary is not that great. He is still babbling like crazy and very vocal otherwise, he just doesn't say much of real words other than "bye" (Which he loves to say!) He has said other words, including momma, dadda, please, thanks, ball, but nothing consistent at all, like maybe a few times for the words other than momma and dadda, and will not say them when prompted either.

So when he gets frustrated and wants help, he whines or throws a mini tantrum, just until I step in to help him. I have read that I should let him get frustrated, because that will help him learn. So I don't want to step in before he feels he needs my help.But I just don't know what to do about the whining. Its so hard for me to ignore, if he just wants my help. But at the same time I am starting to feel like by my responding to his whining for that, he is now starting to whine/cry for everything (like if he wants a drink, book, his lovie, to go outside, anything really). I try to say " oh you need help, say, please help momma" as I go to help him. Since he has said "please" and "momma" before, just not really knowing what they mean(except for momma), and not consistently at all, but I know he knows HOW to say them, because he has. But its been awhile now and he still hasn't picked up that that is how he should ask for help. Am I expecting to much for him to even say momma or please instead of whine?

I don't want to frustrate him even more by requesting he say please (even though I know he can but he's just being stubborn) and have it lead into a meltdown. But I also don't want to just keep answering to whining if its going to make the situation worse.

He still gets two great naps a day and sleeps about 11 hours at night, so I don't think he's overtired and that's leading him to whine, I just think its that he doesn't know how else to get my attention, because he doesn't know many words yet...and I've always responded to the whining. I'm just new at the whole mom job and I'm not sure where to start with the foundation of good behavior if that makes sense! Its hard to know where helping your baby meets hurting them in the long run. At least for me! Thanks in advance!
-- Ashley

Ashley,
The whining you are describing is very common at 15 months. Babies this age whine as a means of communication. They don't know that we find it irritating, and they wouldn't have the self control 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:

1. They don't yet have enough words to reliably communicate (and 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.

2. They feel powerless. Babies whine more when they don't feel like they can meet their own needs, or count on their adult to meet their needs.

Some of the things you describe -- wanting you to get him a drink, book, his lovie, to go outside -- seem to require your assistance.  You can, of course, make sure he can get his own drink with a stool in the bathroom for instance, and I strongly recommend that you set up his life so that he can be as independent as possible.  (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?)

But if indeed your help is necessary to get these things, then the frustration you are describing is partly about being dependent on you.  If you wait to help him, you are not teaching him anything useful. You are stressing him out, reinforcing his dependency and powerlessness.

If you step in pre-emptively, you reduce the frustration, and therefore the tendency to whine. What if he's whining about something he could do for himself, like get his lovey across the room?  He's telling you he's running on empty and needs some re-fueling nurturing from you.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Sure, you can make dinner for yourself, but isn't it nice to have someone else feed you sometimes? (More on this in #5, 6, 7 and 8 below.)

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 also ill-advised. He has plenty of time to learn manners. Why add fuel to the fire? That's how parents trigger tantrums.

3. They are frustrated.  Whining is a way for humans to communicate that they feel overwhelmed and need help. So if your son is working on something and is frustrated with it, he may well whine. 

I know experts often say frustration is good for little ones, but my opinion is that frustration is misunderstood.  If your child is working hard at doing something, he will try and try again, and you certainly don't want to jump in to do it for him.  That deprives him of learning and gives him the message that he is too dumb and incompetent to master that new task himself. 

But too much frustration is as stressful to your child as it is to you. Is frustration good for you? Maybe a little bit, 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!") If you think about your son'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. 15 month olds don't have the developed frontal cortex to manage much frustration and can get easily overwhelmed.

So the best way to respond when your son begins to sound "whiney" is to acknowledge his feelings, and let him know you're standing by as backup if he needs you.  You might say "You are trying so hard....But it keeps falling down....hmmm.....That's frustrating."  He knows more words than you think, and your tone will reassure him that this isn't an emergency.  He may, then, be able to master his upset enough to push through and do it himself.  The key is that your loving attention helps him to manage his own mounting anxiety -- he sees that you aren't worried about this, and you are right there if he needs you. 

But remember that his internal resources will vary from day to day and at different times of the day.  If he is begging you for help, there is nothing wrong with stepping in:  "I know you did this yourself yesterday.  But right now you want my help.  Of course, I am always here to help if you want.  What if we balance the block this way?  Do you think you can put the next block on?"

4. 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.

Some ideas for bored 15 month olds: Remember to rotate his toys.  Active kids love a small climbing gym indoors. Anything using water, ice, 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 clean 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.

5. 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?

6. They are tired. He probably doesn't whine when he's well-rested after a nap. 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.

7. 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 grown 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 Baby, 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.

So be pre-emptive. Make sure that your son gets enough of your positive attention unprovoked, especially at the times of day when he is 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 the need.) The secret is to take the initiative and give attention the child hasn’t asked for, often, so he feels your support and 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.

8. They need to cry. Life is full of frustration for toddlers.  That builds up stress hormones: cortisol, adrenaline, etc.  Nature has designed humans with a fail-safe to get those stress chemicals out of our system: crying. Most toddlers need some time to cry on a regular basis.  Please note that I am NOT suggesting making your child cry or leaving your child alone to cry, ever.  If you have ever had the wonderful experience of someone holding you and stroking your head gently as you cry, you know what a gift it is to have a trusted person help you feel safe enough to cry.  That is a gift that every child needs from his parents.  If your son is whining a lot and you have done everything you can to meet his needs, try cuddling him in your arms and giving him your full attention.  Say: "You seem so unhappy.  Do you need to cry and be sad?  That's ok, I am right here with all my love.  Go ahead and cry if you want." 

If your child is too angry to be held, stay just as compassionate and stay as close as you can without making him angrier.  Most kids move through the angry part of the tantrum and then collapse sobbing into your arms. After they release all those pent-up upsets, they're more cheerful for the rest of the day.

9. 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 pre-emptively 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 feels better to him. He's communicating his emotions to you. So it's best if you intervene positively when he whines to 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?"

I hear how important it is to you to do a good job as a mom. I want to encourage you to use your instincts, which sound very good to me, and ignore the messages you are hearing about not responding to your son. 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 have to resort to a full-blown tantrum.

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 little one 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!

Thanks for all that info. Its definitely very helpful. I printed it off to read again and again, and to show it to my husband. I'm very interested in signing with DS if it will help, which after reading your comments I think it would. Am I too late in the game to start though? I know its recommended to start much earlier? Will it hinder his drive to speak verbally at all do you think?
-- Ashley

Despite the rumors that signing might delay language acquisition, there's mounting evidence that learning signing actually facilitates speech development. It's definitely not too late to start, and he will begin signing back faster than a younger baby. My advice would be to start with a few words, then once he masters them add a few more. Pick words he needs all the time: juice, milk, eat, all done, lovey, outside.

It's true that you don't really need professional guidance, just the signs themselves, but given that he is already 15 months old and you want to hasten the process, you might want to get your hands on some instruction.

HANDSPEAK.com has a good introduction.

TinyFingers.com has a lot of good info and offers consultations. Another alternative is the signing videos that you watch with your child (SigningTime is one company that makes these.)

You can get used copies of My First Baby Signs Board Book very cheaply on Amazon, and it is terrific.

And here's an adorable Youtube video of a 15 month old signing.

Good luck!

View Older Comments

Anonymous commented on 25-Jun-2010 10:30 AM
This is very insightful, I dont have a child but my sister in law i hear the child whine and bicker about babbling, just the mother is oblivious on how to entertain her child and she elevates quickly and then so does he, then a second later she brings him with nonna to the room and they play and then with in a few minutes she thinks its the solution but once again hes at it chasing her mama mama mama and gets nervous that she isnt there watching him. But thats the mommy she is also a baby herself, but i know his household is a house of screaming italians so i dont know how his brain can handle it.
Laurie Cooper commented on 09-May-2011 08:32 PM
She's absolutely right! I wouldn't be overly concerned as long as you're pretty sure that you've met the basic needs that your toddler has right now, that Dr. Markham has pointed out. I think you'll be amazed at how much better things will be once he begins
to master his speech. Not being able to communicate is SO frustrating for little ones. They 'understand' language much earlier than they can actually verbalize for themselves.
TaSha commented on 06-Oct-2011 07:19 PM
I'm having the same issue with my 15 month old. She only babbles, no real words have been said, aside from mamamamamam and dadadada. She understands so much, but just doesn't seem interested in speaking yet. She also gets frustrated, with me, her toys,
the dogs, pretty much anything. Sometimes she throws things, other times she screams, and some times she has a complete melt-down. I try to help, but when she's in the "angry" stage, she won't focus long enough to understand that I'm trying to help. I might
have to try the sign language. At this point, any type of communication would probably help! Thanks for the information.

Hide Older Comments

Search Q&A's