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It’s science: whining really is the most annoying sound (for a very important reason)

When our child speaks their first words the sound of that little voice is the most beautiful thing in the world, but later, when they’re whining at us, it’s probably the most annoying thing we’ve ever heard. And that’s not just the opinion of frustrated parents, that’s science.

Studies have shown that the sound of whining causes stress responses in adults, and is more distracting than other sounds.

According to Rose Sokol-Chang, one of the co-authors of those studies, there’s an evolutionary reason why we just can’t ignore whining: attachment. From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, whining is meant to draw parents to a child, and as anyone with a toddler at home knows, it works.

“People tend to think that whining is a bad behavior, something that need to be squelched, but it’s something that is very integral to attachment relationships, much like baby cries are,” says Sokol-Chang.

We know that when our babies cry, we’re impacted on a physical level, and the same is true of whining. Researchers tested the effects of whining on adults by playing two dull recorded stories for people, one in each ear. The participants were asked to repeat one story, and ignore the other. That story was interrupted with whining, and proved hard for participants to block out.

“They also have a galvanic skin response, so they have a spike in the measure of sweat in their fingertips, which is usually associated with stress or heightened attention,” Sokol-Chang notes.

The other study compared how well people could focus on a math problem when listening to whining sound, or listening to a machine noise. “The machine noise was a pretty high pitched table saw that kept catching on wood, so it kind of had the same properties of whining,” Sokol-Chang explains, adding that the saw noise turned out to be easier to ignore than the whining.

Basically, we’re wired to find whining intolerable, but Sokol-Chang recommends parents try to look at whining as an attachment behavior rather than an annoying behavior, and see whining episodes as a reminder to connect with our kids.

“The whining usually is not about the candy or whatever’s being asked for, it’s usually a sign that you need to tune in and give some attention. There’s a different need than what’s being expressed,” she explains, adding that proactive parenting can help stop whining before it starts.

“Tune in more often throughout the day. Make sure you’re giving the child attention before it gets to the point that he or she is whining,” says Sokol-Chang.

When that doesn’t work, and the world’s most annoying sound comes out of your child’s mouth, remember that it’s a sign of the bond you share with your child. Humans don’t make that noise at people they’re not close with, according to Sokol-Chang. It’s a kind of communication that happens between parents and kids, and between partners.

“You don’t just whine to anyone, you whine to the people that you love. So if you’re being whined to you are probably loved,” says Sokol-Chang.

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