Have you ever found yourself driven to the brink of madness by your child’s persistent noises? From humming to grunting, whistling to repeating sounds, these repetitive mouth noises can take a toll on even the most patient parent. But fear not! I’m a Certified Behavior Analyst, and today, we’ll take a look at some of the reasons why children make these noises and give suggestions to help you and your child manage them.
My Kid’s Mouth Noises Are Driving Me Bonkers!
Let’s talk about your situation first. Parents have sensory needs too, and repetitive noise can be distracting and stressful. In some cases, parents may also struggle with misophonia, which is a strong stress response to certain sounds (often these are every day sounds like chewing or breathing.) In most social settings, repetitive mouth noises would not be welcomed, so you might also be worried about awkward encounters while out in the community.
Meanwhile, you’re trying to understand the situation from your child’s point of view. Does this satisfy an important need or help with self-regulation? Could this be a sign of something else going on that you need to be worried about?
Why Does My Child Make Repetitive Noises?
On their own, repetitive mouth noises (such as humming, grunting, whistling, repeating sounds) are very rarely a cause for concern. There are a few different reasons kids make them, and in most cases, you can manage the situation for a while, and it resolves itself over time. Let’s look at 4 of the most common reasons for repetitive mouth noises.
One of the most common reasons for repetitive mouth noises is “stimming.” For readers who aren’t familiar with the term, “stimming” is a term commonly used in the Autistic community to describe behaviors (such as movements or sounds) that help with sensory or emotional regulation, to express excitement and joy, or to help with focus.
While clinicians might describe a “stim” as “stereotypical” or a symptom of a psychological disorder, most of us have movements and habits that help us to stay calm or alert. If you’ve ever fidgeted, squirmed, played with your hair, rubbed your temples, or wrung your hands, then you’ve experienced some form of stimming too.
Repetitive noise-making (or “vocal stimming”) isn’t an exclusively Autistic habit either; how often have you had a song “stuck” in your head and found yourself humming it or repeating a funny catchphrase from a movie? As an adult, you’re probably quite good at catching yourself before you belt out ‘Remember Me’ from Coco or resisting the urge to imitate the interesting noise the kettle just made. However, kids aren’t as self-conscious, so they express these impulses at full volume.
2. Boredom and Sensory Play
Another very common reason for repetitive mouth noises is a straightforward one: it feels interesting, and it’s fun. Children naturally look for variety and stimulation, especially when there’s not much to do, and our mouths are full of muscles and nerve endings that can create really surprising effects.
Your child’s noises might even be a side effect of some other mouth habit. I remember what it felt like to be a child riding home from school, clicking my teeth together as the school bus passed each street light. It was the feeling of the click, not the sound, that helped to pass the time. Your child might be practicing an interesting tongue click or noticing the feeling of air on the inside of his lower lip just for the sake of play.
3. Social Connection and Communication
All of us have verbal and non-verbal ways to signal for help from one another. We don’t always say, “I’d like to go home now,” but we might sigh or yawn instead. Very often, these unspoken signals pass back and forth between us before we realize what we are doing. In some cases, your child’s repetitive mouth noises might be one way of signaling for your attention or sending you a cue that help is needed.
If you’re wondering whether your child’s repetitive mouth noises are part of a bid for attention or help, notice what tends to happen next. Do people respond? Do they move away from your child or toward them? Do the mouth noises increase when people respond? Do they happen when no one else is around? These are all clues that can help you to see if there is a link between your child’s mouth noises and communication with those around him.
4. Tics and Compulsive Behaviors
In a few cases, repetitive mouth noises are caused by a “‘tic.” A tic is a motor movement or sound that a person feels they must do. Tics can be repetitive or sudden. Common tics include blinking, shrugging, and throat-clearing. People with tic disorders can sometimes stop or delay the urge for a while, but they feel more and more tense until they allow themselves to perform the movement or make the sound.
Twitches are not the same as tics. While twitches are tiny, involuntary partial muscle movements like a little jerking movement under the eye, tics tend to involve the whole muscle or several groups of muscles. Tics and stims are different too. While both tics and stims involve unusual movements and provide a sense of relief afterward, you will notice that they have different triggers: stims are often noticeable in predictable situations, while tics can appear very suddenly and then stop. Sometimes tics get even more noticeable when you draw attention to them.
When Should I Be Worried About Childhood Tics?
If you are concerned that your child’s repetitive noises might be a vocal tic rather than a stim or another voluntary type of movement, you can consult with your family doctor. Not every tic is a cause for concern, and many children go through periods where they tic for a while (especially in periods of stress or excitement.) Your doctor can assess your child to see if the tics are persistent and frequent enough to be considered a “tic disorder.”
Tics can be startling and sometimes embarrassing, but in most cases, they won’t do any harm. Tic disorders tend to run in families and are more common in people with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD.)
What Do I Do When My Child’s Noises Are Intensely Annoying to Me?
If your child is simply playing or joyfully stimming, you don’t want to suppress that, but still, some noises are naturally hard to listen to! It’s okay to ask for a break; you could try: “I think I need some quiet, and I keep noticing those mouth noises. How about we hang out in different rooms for a while? Want me to help you set up your toys in your room?”
I’m quite sensitive to noise, so I have road-tested quite a few of these suggestions for when you’re starting to feel triggered:
- Put on some noise-cancelling headphones
- Pop in some noise-reducing earplugs
- Turn on the white noise (e.g., using a fan, an app or even YouTube)
- Take some time outdoors, either together or alone
- Play some music (if you have an instrument to play, even better!)
- Excuse yourself to the bathroom (you can take a quick break or block out all sound with a shower for a while)
More Helpful Links for Dealing with Mouth Noises:
- Calm Down Kids – Blow Bubbles – One of our favorite oral-motor and calming activities
- Printable Sensory Activities Sheet – includes a variety of activities, some oral motor activities.
Alissa Zorn is an author, and founder of the website Overthought This. She's a coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa is certified through the International Coach Federation and got her Trauma-Informed Coaching certification from Moving the Human Spirit. She wrote Bounceback Parenting: A Field Guide for Creating Connection, Not Perfection, and is always following curiosity to find her next creative endeavor.