Head Banging in Babies and Toddlers

If you’re the parent of a toddler, you’ve already experienced the phenomena of toddler tantrums at least once. Arms flailing, body writhing, tears streaming, often for no obvious reason (and other times for something as simple as cutting a sandwich). With vocabulary still being acquired, and emotional expression a new extension of identity, physicality is the quickest and easiest way for toddlers to express their anger or frustration in a situation. While alarming, full-body tantrums are minute when compared to head banging.

If you are a parent of a child who bangs his head, don’t be alarmed (tough, I know). Head banging is actually quite normal, with As many as 2 in 10 healthy children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years of age. And, if you’re a parent of a boy, he is more likely to head bang than girls his age. Once you get past the alarm, you should take a look at some of the reasons why babies and toddlers head bang.

head banging

The simple answer to the underlying reasons for head banging is that your child is practicing a self-soothing technique (and a scary one at that). Most commonly occurring during sleeping hours, the rhythmic action of head banging serves as a way for your child to comfort himself. According to the Children’s Health Network, head banging episodes can last anywhere from under fifteen minutes (most common) to over an hour. Here are a few reasons why your child might be banging his head:

PAIN

Earaches and emerging teeth might just be the culprits. Because babies and toddlers are still acquiring language, communicating discomfort can still be a challenge. For minor aches such as teething, head banging is a simple way for babies to soothe themselves to sleep.

FRUSTRATION

Toddlers brains are developing at an incredible rate, and they are still learning the intricacies of self expression. Emotions are often felt with intensity, especially in response to boundaries and limitations being set (that impede their sense of independence), and navigating strong emotions can be a challenge for a toddler. In addition to flailing out physically, many toddlers will head bang as a way of their expressing frustration or anger.

ATTENTION

Again, language and expression are emerging and often don’t match up to acquired capabilities. Babies and toddlers will often head bang as a way of getting attention from parents or caregivers. It’s cause-and-effect testing in action; baby/toddler bangs head, parent/caregiver rushes over in alarm.

MEDICAL ISSUE

In rare cases, head banging can be a sign of an underlying medical condition or related to a known medical condition. The Children’s Health Network states that head banging is more common in children who have cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, autism, blindness, or Down Syndrome.

WHAT CAN YOU DO

As always, you should consult your pediatrician if you have concerns about your child’s health. Most children outgrow head banging by school age, but there are things you can do to help your child find alternate coping mechanisms.

If you child is head banging out of frustration, take a moment to acknowledge and discuss the emotions your child is feeling. If your child is head banging as attention seeking behavior, make a point of paying more attention to your little one when he is not banging. Also be sure not to call too much attention to the banging while it is happening (so as not to reinforce the behavior).

Because of the rhythmic nature of head banging, The Children’s Health Network suggests that you work with your child during waking hours, playing with a drum (or other musical instrument/toy), dancing, clapping, and swaying in a swing or utilizing a rocking toy.

HEAD BANGING AND SLEEP

If your child begins head banging during naps and bedtime, your first instinct will likely be to pad the crib or bed. While the majority of bangers won’t bang hard enough to cause themselves harm, it is actually more harmful to add blankets and pillows to your child’s bed in an effort to protect them. Adding blankets and pillows to your baby’s crib creates the possibility of a suffocation risk; instead, allow your child to go to bed with a security object or “lovey” for comfort. Remember to create a warm and calm environment with an established bed and naptime routine (bath, bottle, book, bed). Cuddle and sing to your little one, or play some light music to further create a warm and secure sleep routine.

Again, if you are concerned about your child’s head banging, put a call in to your pediatrician. Most of all, remember that this is just a stage in development for healthy children, and it will pass (just as throwing food did).

If you need help creating a safe sleep environment and comforting bedtime routine for your little one, I’m happy to work with your family!

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