Seeing your little one banging his head on the crib or the wall repeatedly can be alarming for any parent. It doesn't last long, but it's still scary! Is this something you need to worry about? Why your toddler bangs her head It may surprise you, but head banging in toddlers is not uncommon. Up to 20 percent of babies bang their head on purpose, according to Anita Sethi, Ph.D., a research scientist at The Child and Family Policy Center at New York University, in an article for Parenting.
It often starts a little after your child turns a year old and peaks between 18 and 24 months of age, according to Baby Center. By age 3, most children outgrow the habit. Trivia: It's three times more likely that baby boys do it than baby girls.
So, why does your tot do it? Similar to thumb sucking and body rocking, head banging at this age is a form of self-soothing. As they grow and develop, they’re limited to what they can do to deal with negative emotions and release tension. As unusual as it sounds, head banging helps them do just that.
When your toddler bangs her head There are common instances that lead tots to bang their head. Pain relief is one; your tot may bang his head when he’s experiencing pain from teething. Head banging may also be your child's way of getting your attention, and he may continue to do so whenever you fuss over his habit.
Toddlers who head banging comforting do it most around bedtime. “They bang their head rhythmically as they're falling asleep, when they wake up in the middle of the night, or even while they're sleeping,” said Baby Center. “The rhythmic motion seems necessary to soothe or calm the central nervous system in the transition from wakefulness to sleep,” said the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Head banging could also come from a lack of other means of expression. “Some children bang their heads because their language skills have not adequately developed yet. They have no means of expressing difficult emotions like frustration or anger or have no better way to ask for what they want,” Ma. Araceli ‘Lala’ Balajadia-Alcala, a clinical psychologist at the Philippine Children's Medical Center, tells SmartParenting.com.ph. It is why some tots bang their heads when in the middle of a temper tantrum or when mom has said no to something they want, she added.
What to do about your child’s head banging 1. When it's a means of expressing difficult emotions. The first thing to do is to keep calm, said Balajadia-Alcala. Second, make sure your little one is safe by gently leading him away from hard surfaces like a wall or hard furniture.
Then, an important next step is to provide a word for what your child is feeling. “Say, 'You're mad because I didn't let you eat anymore chocolate.' This shows that you understand what he's going through, and at the same time, it's developing your child's emotional intelligence. They need to learn to identify how they feel,” said Balajadia-Alcala.
Then the final step is to provide options to deal with the tantrum. You can offer an alternative treat, something you don't mind giving before dinner like an apple. You can also distract your child by offering to take him outside or starting a game of hide and seek.
“But remember, don't give in to what your child wants,” said Balajadia-Alcala. Giving him that piece of chocolate because he's banging his head will reinforce the behavior, she stressed. It only tells him that the technique works, and that he should do it again the next time around. Scolding him for it will only make matters worse too.
2. When he's head banging around bedtime. Try a soothing night time routine. Dr. Agnes Tirona-Remulla, head of the Sleep Lab at Asian Hospital and Medical Center in Muntinlupa, recommends a sleep routine that starts with the most energetic activity progressing to the most calming. You can start with a warm bath, a gentle rocking in your arms or lap, and then end with a lullaby.
3. When nothing seems to work. Sometimes, your attempts at distracting your child from head banging will not work. It can be terrifying to watch, but your toddler will not bang his head hard enough to injure him severely. “Even though you're panicking in the inside, just ride it out. Keep calm and make sure your child is safe,” said Balajadia-Alcala.
When to worry Head banging is considered to be normal behavior in children between 1 to 2 years old. In most cases, the habit fades away as the child matures and develops, allowing him to find other ways to deal with pain or difficult emotions. “Rarely does head banging alone signal a serious problem,” said Baby Center. But, there may be instances where a child’s head banging may become worrisome to a parent.
Consult your child's doctor if your child continues to bang his head even if it's causing him pain. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, headbanging at night can be considered a disorder, called Rhythmic Movement Disorder (RMD) when it “severely injures the child or greatly disturbs his or her sleep.”
There is a cause for concern if your child bangs his head a lot and repeatedly during the day for no apparent reason, said Balajadia-Alcala. This is especially so if it accompanies other behaviors that could signal a problem. This includes poor eye contact and a lack of desire for affection like cuddling, which could point to Autism, said Sethi.
Other red flags include a loss of skills your child could previously do like walk; if your child becomes increasingly withdrawn; and if you notice delays in reaching developmental milestones. In instances like this, “your doctor may choose to conduct a neurological exam,” added Sethi.