A toddler’s whining may be the worst sound in the world if an
experiment carried out by a team of American psychologists is anything to go

The researchers recorded whining (simulated by an adult), “motherese”
(the way mothers speak to their infants) and neutral speech, as well as an
infant cry and machine noise. They then set their adult subjects — men and
women, parents and non-parents — to doing maths problems while the various
sounds were played for a minute each.

Nails on a blackboard, sirens, heavy drilling, a screeching
saw on wood — none
came close
to childish whining as a cause of distraction and errors, the
results showed. All the adults were similarly affected.

So? The point of the study
was to demonstrate something about the way infants become attached to caregivers
(not just their parents) and vice versa. As anticipated, all “attachment
vocalisations”, including motherese, were more effective in getting the
attention of the adults than other distracting sounds.

The fact that “infant vocalisations” were more effective,
and whining most of all, confirmed the view (of evolutionary psychologists) that
“infants are designed [their word] to manipulate the pitch and rate of production
of cries to sound the most distressed in order to extract the most resources from

Of course, the child may have a real problem you need to
deal with, suggests study co-author Rosemarie Sokol Chang, mother of a
two-year-old herself. She says:

“It’s telling you to tune in,” she said. “Nobody wants to
sit around and listen to a fire engine siren either, but if you hear the siren
go off, it gets your attention. It has to be annoying like that, and it’s the
same with the whine.”

Still, given that this behaviour can drive you to
distraction, there must be a better way. MercatorNet mums and dads, how do you
deal with it?

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet