When Toddlers 'Head Bang' -- Help for Moms

Of all the scary things a toddler can do, head banging is way up on the list. Fine, so they don't want to take a bath, or go sleep... still, it seems extreme for them to slam their little forehead over and over on the floor (or into the wooden slats of your crib) until he looks like he walked straight out of a scene in Chucky. Yikes!


Yet experts say this painful practice is surprisingly not a huge cause for concern. "When parents have a child who frequently bangs his or her head, they often worry something is seriously wrong," says Kristie Rivers, MD, a pediatrician at Bundoo. In fact, about 20 percent of children will head bang at some point, starting as early as 6 months, peaking between 18-24 months, usually fading by age four. Boys are about three times more likely to head bang than girls.

And this behavior doesn't mean what you probably think it does. "Children head bang for a variety of reasons, but the most common is to self-soothe," says Deena Blanchard, MD, pediatrician at NYU Langone Medical Center. "This is why children will often head bang during a tantrum as a way to try and calm down. They may also do this in their cribs to help soothe themselves to sleep." If this is what your child is doing, the solution may be to channel that desire to self-soothe to a less destructive target -- i.e., a transitional object like a blanket or stuffed animal -- to calm down.

Whatever you do, don't cause a fuss about it, since this may only encourage the behavior. "While you want to ensure your child's safety, you also want to be careful not to create too much negative attention around the behavior," says Dr. Blanchard. "If you yell or scream at your child for head banging he will likely continue to do so for attention. Negative reinforcement can be a very strong motivator. In fact, the more you can try to not react to the behavior the more likely it is to go away."

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While some parents may worry that head banging is a sign of developmental difficulty, this is hardly ever the case. "There has been a connection in the literature between head banging and developmental disabilities such as autism, so there is a possible link," says Kelly Tonelli, PsyD, a psychologist in Irvine, California. "But there are a number of additional symptoms present in these situations. It is very rare that head banging be the only symptom reported in possible autism diagnosis. Still, if you are concerned about a possible developmental disability, "take those concerns to your child’s pediatrician, since early intervention is important.

Toddlers may also head bang because their language skills haven't yet caught up to their feelings. "Children at this age typically do not have the verbal ability to express their anger," says  Tonelli. "This may be why the behavior occurs more in boys than in girls as girls often have better developed communication skills as toddlers." If this is what your child is doing, "Help him find more appropriate means of expressing their frustration by providing words where they do not have them. As their verbal abilities improve, the head banging should reduce in frequency."

Last but not least, one very simple reason for head banging may be that your child is experiencing pain, like teething or an ear infection. "It is thought children do so to distract themselves from the pain and to self-soothe," says Tonelli. "If you believe there may be a possible medical factor, have your child seen by a medical professional to rule out an ear infection. Use appropriate treatments for teething pain."

Bottom line: Head banging stems from a variety of causes that are often easily fixed. The less you react, the sooner it will fade.

When does your toddler tend to head-bang?


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