My Toddler Pulls Her Hair Out While She Sleeps: What Can I Do?

toddler sleeping

Of all the maddening bedtime behaviors little ones can have, here's one that may perplex moms more than most: when their toddlers start pulling out their hair while falling asleep. You may spy your toddler yanking at his locks on a video monitor, or see the unfortunate results -- fistfuls of hair on his pillow or bald patches on his head -- in the morning.

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Psychologists have a name for it: trichotillomia -- an overwhelming urge to pull out your hair. It's fairly rare, affecting only 2 to 4 percent of the population, and while it typically starts in the teen years, it can crop up in kids as young as 1. Yet at the toddler stage, they may not call it trichotillomia. That's because this behavior, while strange, has a surprisingly normal rationale if you understand a few basics about toddler development.

"Toddlers go through a normal developmental stage where playing with hair is very normal," says Francine Rosenberg, PsyD, clinical psychologist in Parsippany, New Jersey. Sometimes, all that hair twirling and playing turns into pulling, which can actually feel pleasurable.

"I know it sounds strange because to us it doesn't seem pleasurable, but for them, there's some sensory aspect they find pleasing," Rosenberg continues. "It's a self-soothing activity, no different than thumb-sucking."

For most toddlers, this quirk will pass on its own in due time. That said, it may occasionally be a sign of something more serious, like autism or Asperger's, especially if accompanied by other symptoms in toddlers like rocking, head banging, or struggles to regulate or communicate their feelings. If you're worried, check with your doctor for a full assessment.

Even if hair-pulling is your only problem -- and the bald spots are becoming embarrassing -- there's plenty parents can do to help kids kick the habit. The first step? Try to figure out a replacement object or activity that will scratch that same sensory itch.

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"Parents may want to try introducing a taggy blanket, or dolls with hair, or squeezy balls, or a bunch of beads on a bracelet," Rosenberg says. If that doesn't work, parents can try blocking a toddler's ability to pull with cotton gloves or a Band-Aid on the toddler's thumb, which prevents toddlers from getting a good grip on those hair follicles.

As an added measure, parents may want to consider setting up a reward system for toddlers -- like stickers or candy or praise -- only how you explain what the reward is for is important. 

"You don't reward them for not pulling their hair," conditions Rosenberg. Instead, she says positive reinforcement will work better if you reward them for what they do, like holding the taggy blanket all night or wearing the gloves until morning.

Or if the behavior continues in spite of your efforts to curb it, you can consult a pediatrician or psychologist, or consult the many support groups and information forums at the Trichotillomia Learning Center.

What's the most baffling thing your toddler does to self-soothe?



Image © Cornelia Schauermann/Corbis

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