Understanding the mechanisms that generate oscillations in the incidence of childhood infectious diseases has preoccupied epidemiologists and population ecologists for nearly two centuries. This body of work has generated simple yet powerful explanations for the epidemics of measles and chickenpox, while the dynamics of other infectious diseases, such as whooping cough, have proved more challenging to decipher. A number of authors have, in recent years, proposed that the noisy and somewhat irregular epidemics of whooping cough may arise due to stochasticity and its interaction with nonlinearity in transmission and seasonal variation in contact rates. The reason underlying the susceptibility of whooping cough dynamics to noise and the precise nature of its transient dynamics remain poorly understood. Here we use household data on the incubation period in order to parametrize more realistic distributions of the latent and infectious periods. We demonstrate that previously reported phenomena result from transients following the interaction between the stable annual attractor and unstable multiennial solutions.