If your child is makes strange repetitive noises, you might be wondering what's behind this behavior. In this blog post, we bring in a Certified Behavior Analyst to take a look at some of the reasons why children make these noises and give suggestions to help you and your child manage them.
Learning more about your child's sensory needs can be a game-changer for both of you, and a lot of difficult behaviors might suddenly start making more sense! We share resources and ideas, including when to worry about things like tics or developmental disorders and ways you can help transform potentially very annoying noises into something more tolerable.
Question: 6 Year Old Constantly Making Annoying Mouth Noises
Hi Alissa, I seem to recall reading here that one of your sons had issues with “mouth noises”? My 6 year old started with this over the summer and it’s nearly non-stop now. It’s repetitive, really annoying as you can imagine, and (I think) disruptive and disrespectful (though I know he doesn’t mean it to be!) I wonder what to do about it – if anything. Should I just ignore it and hope it goes away?
One of the thoughts I had was not just the ‘annoyance’ around this but obviously what point does it serve. Is it, as they say in the therapy world, “stimming”? Is it a nervous habit, is it helpful/harmful, should a professional be consulted, etc…? Wondering if you or your readers have any thoughts or similar experiences with a child constantly making noises?
Hi, I’m Amelia Bowler, and I’d be glad to answer this question. I’m a mother of neurodivergent children, a writer, and a behavior analyst. I’ve written two books on the subject of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (one for parents and one for teachers) and I’m fascinated by unexpected and uncomfortable things people (especially children!) do. I hope I can share some information that helps you both to get what you need.
Common Causes of Repetitive Noises
The way you’ve written this question is so relatable, because you’ve highlighted both how the repetitive mouth noises make you feel (disrespected, annoyed) and also the fact that your child might have his own reasons for doing this so excessively.
Let’s talk about your situation first. Parents have sensory needs too, and a 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 everyday 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?
So, why do children make repetitive noises? There are a few different reasons, and in most cases, you can manage the situation for a while, and it resolves itself over time. On their own, repetitive mouth noises (such as humming, grunting, whistling, repeating sounds) are very rarely a cause for concern. Let’s look at the following possible reasons for repetitive mouth noises, then we will talk about what you can do in each case:
- Boredom and sensory play
- Social connection and communication
- Tics and compulsive behaviors
One of the most common reasons for repetitive mouth noises is the one you suggested: “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. (For instance, I’m wiggling my ankles and toes as I type this!) 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.
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.
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’ve realized 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? 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.
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 afterwards, 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 do 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.)
Coping Strategies Question: How do I stop my child from making noises?
Now that you have considered a few different possible explanations for your child’s repetitive mouth noises, what can you do? Your strategy will be different depending on why you think the noises might be happening.
For example, if you’re quite sure that the noises are a “stim”, then you can look for the situations that tend to trigger the stim. Does your child seem stressed? Anxious? Overwhelmed? If you see that the stims are associated with stressful events for your child, then helping them cope with the situation might naturally lead to a reduction in the particular noise that bothers you.
Similarly, if you see that the repetitive mouth noises tend to happen when your child is a little bored or uncomfortable, you can provide some opportunities that meet their needs while making the mouth noise less likely. For example, you can provide sensory stimulation that keeps your child’s mouth busy with:
- Sugar-free chewing gum
- Crunchy or frozen snacks
- Bubble-blowing detergent
- A thick smoothie and a straw
- Chewable jewelry or mouth fidgets
If you notice that your child’s noises might be signaling a need for social connection, then you can casually start up a conversation, invite your child to sing with you, or initiate a preferred activity, instead of going through your usual “please stop doing that” interaction.
Similarly, if you notice that your child often makes noises when they need time on their own (e.g., you’ve seen that people tend to leave the room when the noise starts up, and the noise winds down soon afterwards), you can offer your child some other suggestions for requesting what they need. One possible script could be: “Sometimes when I hear that sound, I wonder if you need some time on your own. Don’t worry, it’s not rude to ask for space. It’s okay to say: can I have some quiet time? You can also say: I need a break. Want to try it?”
What do I do when my child’s repetitive mouth noises are intensely annoying to me?
Once you’ve taken some time to get curious about your child’s mouth noises, you might feel less personally offended by them. If your child is simply playing or joyfully stimming, you don’t want to suppress that, but still, some noises are just naturally hard to listen to! If the sounds really getting on your nerves and you’re distracted or grossed out, you need a way to cope somehow. It’s okay to ask for a break too, and if you are wondering how to say it kindly, 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 (e.g., Loop)
- 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)
Resources for further reading:
If you’d like to read more about how Autistic people describe their experiences with stimming, you might want to check out this article in the academic journal Autism: ‘People should be allowed to do what they like’: Autistic adults’ views and experiences of stimming.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention can provide more detailed information on how to identify and manage tics.
Books on Sensory Processing:
- Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues
- Everyday Games for Sensory Processing Disorder
- The Superkids Activity Guide to Conquering Every Day
Helpful Links for Dealing with Mouth Noises:
- Sensory Processing Explained | Oral Sensory System [from Lemon Lime Adventures]
- 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.
Learning more about sensory needs can be a game-changer for both you and your child, and a lot of difficult behaviors like repetitive mouth noises might suddenly start making more sense! I’m so glad you wrote in, and I hope this gave you some practical suggestions for figuring out what’s behind these repetitive sounds.
If you’ve noticed that your child makes mouth noises as a way to cope in different situations, you can try to manage those moments with your child, or offer alternative strategies to help with emotional or sensory self-regulation . If you need extra help, reach out to an occupational therapist; they are great for finding creative ways to meet sensory needs.
If you are worried that a repetitive noise might be a tic or a compulsion, go ahead and check in with your doctor. Together, you can assess whether it is in fact a tic, and if there are any indications that your child may have an associated disorder such as ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome or OCD. The most important factor to consider is whether this noise-making is bothering your child, or affecting his life in a negative way. Many tics are temporary, but if you keep track of how long this has been going on, and what the triggers are, your doctor will be better able to help you.
In the meantime, your sensory needs are important too, and it’s okay to use tools that manage your noise sensitivity. You might find that noise-cancelling headphones or noise-filtering earplugs help you in all kinds of situations.
Finally, remember that you are not alone! Many other parents are struggling with this too, and I’m sure that your question will help them find the answers they need.