Updated: Jan 7
Head banging can be very alarming when parents first see it happening, which is totally understandable. I've worked with quite a few clients whose child started head banging along with sleep training. So, why does it happen and what do we do? Before I move on, in case you haven't experienced this, head banging is exactly what it sounds like. It's when a baby or toddler purposely bangs his head. With sleep training, the child head bangs at night in his crib. He'll literally bang his head on the side of the crib. It's different than accidentally bumping his head. Head banging is a repeated and rhythmic movement. It does sound alarming, right?
Why a Toddler Head Bangs at Night
We don't yet know exactly why this happens, but there are a few scientific theories. First, some babies may head bang as a way to self-soothe. I know that banging your head on something hard doesn't sound soothing. However, the rhythmic movements and sense of control over them may actually help the child calm down and fall asleep. You've likely seen your baby pull both legs up over his torso and then slam them down on the floor (or changing table as mine all used to do). They may repeat this over and over. Head banging is the same type of rhythmic movement.
Second, experts believe a baby head bangs because it stimulates his vestibular system. The vestibular system is a sensory system that is responsible for sending the brain information about motion, spatial orientation, and head position. It's also involved with motor functions that allow us to keep our balance, maintain posture, and stabilize our head with different movements. Practice with this system is a big part of a baby's growth and development. So, baby could just be taking the quiet, calm opportunity to explore these senses.
One thing you can do to help a baby explore and meet these sensory needs is to give him experiences of this type of movement during the day. Sitting on an exercise ball and rocking back-and-forth and side-to-side will accomplish this. A swing is another way to give him a vestibular type of movement. Giving a baby these types of experiences could help lessen their need to do this at night.
The last theory is that babies and toddlers may head bang as a way to cope with anxiety. In terms of sleep training and why head banging may begin along with it, all three of these theories make sense. Sleep training is a change, with the goal often being that the baby learns to self-soothe. I don't always like change, do you? So, a baby or toddler who head bangs could be coping with changes to his routine, learning to self-soothe, and/or exploring his senses.
Is Head Banging Harmful?
Every time I come across a child who bangs his head, the parents understandably question if sleep training should continue. They assume we shouldn't just let the baby continue to bang his head on the crib. However, this isn't actually the case. Although head banging seems alarming, it's not a cause for concern in most cases.
Any time I work with a head banger, I always have the parents check with their pediatrician to make sure there aren't any medical concerns I'm not aware of that could affect this. So far, all of the pediatricians we've worked with on this have agreed that the head banging was not a concern. They all gave us the go-ahead to ignore it and continue with sleep training. So, that's what we do. We treat head banging like any other form of sleep training protest and deal with it accordingly. There's no specific method of sleep training to use with head banging. You can simply use whatever method you were planning to and respond to the head banging the same way you would any other protest. In all cases so far where head banging begun with sleep training, it stopped once we got sleep training underway and the child learned independent sleep skills.
The only time head banging may be a concern is when these movements cause daytime impairment, long-term trouble sleeping, and/or injury. This is known as Sleep Related Rhythmic Movement Disorder and it is rare. In most cases of head banging, it will go away on its own and will not cause any harm.
59% of 9-month-olds will do some head banging
33% of 18-month-olds will head bang
by age 5, only 5% head bang
only about 1% of babies and toddlers have the above disorder
A baby or toddler who head bangs at night could just be coping with changes to his routine, learning to self-soothe, and/or exploring his senses. If you are concerned about head banging, talk to your child's doctor. Aside from certain medical conditions, it's likely he'll tell you not to worry at all and to let it go away on its own!
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~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant