Head Banging

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.

Parents have been heading me off at the pass with lots of questions about their babies who seem to enjoy banging their heads against the floor or crib.  Let me see if I can provide some bang-up advice on this topic.

Head banging, although uncomfortable to watch, is actually a normal soothing or rhythmic behavior demonstrated by up to 20% of healthy infants and toddlers, usually between the ages of 6 months and 3 years of age.  Boys do it 3-4 times more than girls.

While one worries that this behavior might be a sign of developmental delay or autism, it is rare that either condition would present itself this way without other clues.

What causes so many healthy children to want to bang their heads?  It may be that your child is frustrated, under-stimulated, over-stimulated or perhaps stressed by something.  What we do know is infants and toddlers will do it again and again –perhaps subconsciously – to keep any parental attention coming their way, especially when it is known that doing this will not harm or injure a child’s brain or affect their intelligence, since these young children lack the force to cause such damage.

So what can we do about head banging?  First, try to ignore this behavior as much as possible, or if you see it starting, try distraction with a different activity to divert your child’s attention.  If it is done when your child is in the crib, pull the crib away from the wall and pad the legs to soften the noise and the impact.  Carpeting the floor can also do the same thing.

Using a metronome or playing music has also been found to give your child a different rhythm to enjoy than that which they get from head banging. 

When do you worry?  If the head banging continues beyond 3 years of age and is interfering with sleep, or if your child is demonstrating other signs that may worry you, such as not relating well to other people or not achieving expected developmental milestones, talk to your child’s health care professional.  It’s possible that a more detailed developmental evaluation is in order, though these situations are rare.

Hopefully tips like this will head off any concerns you might have, and smooth out the bumps, when it comes to being concerned about your child’s head banging.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

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