As most parents of toddlers know, they can get up to some pretty strange things, from the innocent (hello, running around naked) to the sometimes frightening — like headbanging. If you're noticing your toddler hits their head against crib rails or pounds their forehead with their hands, keep reading to understand what's going on.
What does head banging look like in some toddlers?
"Self-injury in general can be common from time to time in toddlers — headbanging is just one form it takes," said Joseph Austerman, DO, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic. "Toddlers will frequently hit, bite, or scratch themselves when upset or frustrated. This is a normal developmental phenomena." Headbanging may range from a sitting toddler who suddenly falls over and hits their head to a toddler who runs into walls or one who purposefully hits their head with their hands, Dr. Austerman said. In addition, some toddlers may fall down in protest to something, hit their head against their crib, or accidentally hit something too hard during a tantrum — usually not with the intent to harm themselves. "Though there's no real data on how often headbanging can occur, this sort of self-injury generally diminishes as your child develops better language skills," Dr. Austerman said.
Why do some toddlers bang their heads?
There may be a few reasons. "Sometimes headbanging is done purely out of a sense of frustration," Dr. Austerman said. "Toddlers often get emotional when they cannot effectively communicate their needs and receive the desired object or behaviour in return. Even adults sometimes react to similarly frustrating situations by hitting something or verbally lashing out." However, toddlers have a much more limited toolkit to communicate their frustration or calm themselves down, leaving them to react with headbanging or another aggression toward themselves or others, Dr. Austerman explained. (This also explains why toddlers are often so quick to hit or bite others when upset.)
Headbanging may also be an emotional coping mechanism for some toddlers. "Self-injury could also be a result of frustration or being overwhelmed with environmental stresses, like separation anxiety, for example," Dr. Austerman said. "Toddlers can become highly emotional, and their inability to effectively communicate their needs may result in headbanging."
This kind of behaviour could also signal a developmental issue. "Children that have autism, intellectual disability, or struggle with sensory integration problems may display increased frequency of self injury or headbanging due to sensory overload," Dr. Austerman said.
Should I be worried that my toddler is banging their head?
Ultimately, a small amount of headbanging may be normal, but should you ever become concerned, make an appointment with your child's pediatrician. If you're looking for a few ways to soothe your toddler at home, Dr. Austerman suggested you:
- Help foster better communication and language from your toddler. You can try interpreting their words, expanding on what they say, or explaining what you're doing.
- Let your toddler know that that behaviour is wrong, but keep emotionally calm. This will help model how to appropriately handle big feelings.
- Look for triggers that might lead to self-injury (like being overly tired or hungry), and develop a game plan to avoid or modify them (like planning around naptime or always travelling with a snack).
- Check to see if there is an underlying problem you can treat. For example, a teething toddler will frequently hit their face or bite due to the pain of teething. If you provide a chilled teething ring to soothe aching gums, you can reduce self-injury.
But again, if you're concerned, you should make an appointment with your pediatrician. "Frequent self-injury or severe headbanging may be indicative of a more significant underlying issue and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider," Dr. Austerman said. "When you have taken the steps above but self-injury continues or if the headbanging is happening multiple times per week (and not associated with specific triggers), then you should consider consulting a professional."