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Head Banging

Expert Pediatrics Q&A

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Updated July 16, 2014

Q. Our 14-month-old daughter bangs her head against her mattress/blanket repeatedly during the middle of the night for up to an hour at a time. Should this be of concern to us? Tracy, Washington

A. Although distressing for parents, head banging at bedtime or in the middle of the night is usually normal for young children.

Head banging is usually thought to be a parasomnia, or sleep disorder, like sleep walking or night terrors. Head banging is also sometimes classified as a rhythmic movement disorder.

These children may bang their head into a pillow, mattress, side of a crib, or even the floor, as they fall asleep or when they wake up in the middle of the night. Others rock their whole body or just roll their head. It may occur as they are falling asleep, to actually help them fall asleep, or sometimes during non-REM sleep.

Other experts consider head banging to be a self-soothing habit, just like thumb sucking or hair pulling. Either way, it is usually thought to be normal and is estimated to occur in up to 15% of children who are growing and developing normally.

In addition to head banging, some children hum or make other noises, and the episodes, all together, may last 15 minutes or more.

Head banging usually begins during a baby's first year of life and most kids stop by the time they are about three to four years old.

Unlike head banging that can sometimes be associated with autism and other neurological disorders, children with simple head banging typically only do it at night. On the other hand, when head banging or another rhythmic movement is a sign of autism, you can usually expect that the child will often do it during the day too.

Treatments for Head Banging

Since it is not harmful and typically goes away on its own, no treatment is usually required for head banging. Since may children do it as a form of comfort at bedtime, any efforts to try and make your child stop head banging may increase his anxiety and make him want to do it more.

If you think that the head banging is disrupting your child's sleep, your pediatrician or a pediatric sleep expert might offer some suggestions on decreasing this behavior, such as:

  • making sure that you don't reinforce the head banging by providing negative reinforcement, such as nagging your child to stop.
  • offering an alternative bedtime comfort object, such as a blanket or stuffed animal.
  • sticking to fairly strict routines for bedtime and naps.
  • make sure your child is in a safe environment when he goes to sleep and can't hurt himself while banging his head. Although this may mean padding his crib, this usually isn't necessary.


Sources:

Parasomnias of Childhood and Adolescence. Stores G - Sleep Medicine Clin - September 2007; 2(3); 405-417.

Kliegman: Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed.

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