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Why do some babies and toddlers bang their head?

All parents of toddlers have witnessed the full body flailing of their enraged child.  Kids definitely don’t hold back when they’re angry or upset!  This can be disconcerting to the parent, but even more disconcerting is when your baby or toddler repeatedly bangs her head against the wall or the sides of her crib or the floor—for apparently no reason at all.

According to parents.com, as many as 20 percent of babies and toddlers between the ages of 6 months and 24 months intentionally bang their heads. For some, this can last a few weeks and for others up to a few years, usually settling down by the age of three or four.

Why do they do it?

Comfort – You know how rocking in a rocking chair or falling asleep on a boat can be soothing? The back and forth rhythm can be calming and help you relax.  Head banging has the same effect for some babies when they discover that the repeated motion helps them feel at ease.  Some children will even head bang as a part of their self-soothing process before sleep time.

Anger or frustration – Young children do not have the verbal skills they need to express the storm of emotions they go through, so banging can help them vent these feeling.

Pain – Some babies and toddler bang their heads as a way to self-soothe when they have teething pain or earaches.

Attention – Older toddlers who realize that you find the head banging upsetting might do it to get your attention. The more you try to stop them, the more they will see it as something that can get a rise out of you.

In very rare cases, repeated head banging can be a sign of an underlying issue such as autism. If you notice other behavioral or developmental issues with your child, it’s always a good idea to get him checked out, especially if the head banging continue past the age of four.

So what do you do?

The first step is to make sure your child is safe and protect her from hurting herself.  Children that head bang will generally not cause themselves harm; they will only bang hard enough to comfort themselves, not to cause actual pain or injury to themselves.  Resist the urge to line the side of the bed or crib with pillows, as this is a suffocation risk.  Most children will not bang hard enough to cause themselves pain.

Give her some extra attention when she’s not banging.  This is always helpful for most attention-grabbing behaviors from kids.   During the day, try a few extra minutes playing Legos or sitting down to read books can go a long way to giving your child what she needs.  Try not to get too upset or make too much of a fuss when she’s actually banging, because this will set up a negative reinforcement situation.  Just make sure she’s safe and try to distract her if possible.  If not, let the banging session run its course and carry on with your day.

Offer your child other solutions for soothing himself, such as cuddling and playing some calm music, giving him a warm bath, singing a song or telling a story.

Once your child develops the ability to speak and express himself more, he will most likely stop the head banging.  Remember: we all have our ways of expressing anger, frustration and sadness.  Head banging might seem like an alarming way to do it, but most of the time it’s ok and won’t cause any long term damage or trauma.

About the author

Shannon Glenn

Shannon Glenn is the owner and founder of Sleep Well Children Consulting and a Certified Pediatric Sleep Specialist. She is dedicated to helping parents assist their children and babies in developing healthy sleep habits. With a B.A. in Psychology, Shannon has worked extensively with children and their families for over 15 years in a variety of settings.  She has been offering sleep solutions for over six years.  

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