Many toddlers bang their heads to self-soothe before falling asleep.

Behavior Modification for Head Banging in Toddlers

by Kristen Fisher

If you’ve suddenly started noticing your toddler banging his head like a teenager at a rock concert, you’re not alone. While it’s alarming to witness, many young children bang their heads against the wall, floor or crib, and the behavior is rarely anything to worry about. Understanding why your child has picked up this peculiar habit can help you determine if and when you need to intervene.

1. Identifying the Cause

Toddlers bang their heads for different reasons, so before you can change the behavior, you need to find its cause. If your daughter tends to bang her head before falling asleep at night, she’s actually using the movement to self-soothe and release the last of her energy; many kids find the rhythmic motion to be calming. If the head banging tends to crop up during one of her no-holds-barred tantrums, then she’s using it to express frustration. In other cases, many toddlers actually turn to head banging to relieve pain; the discomfort of the banging may help distract them from the discomfort of teething or ear infections.

2. When To Ignore

Generally, there’s no need to interfere with head banging as long as your toddler isn’t hurting himself or others. In fact, reacting can actually reinforce the behavior and cause him to bang his head to get your attention even when nothing is wrong. If you’re worried about your little one injuring his precious noggin, rest assured it’s highly unlikely he’ll do any consequential damage. Your toddler might seem to possess super-strength when he's hurling blocks across the room, but kids younger than 3 aren't strong enough to cause brain damage or neurological problems, according to pediatrician Alan Greene.

3. When To Step In

If your toddler’s head-banging performances are too much for you to take, help her find other ways to express frustration or soothe herself. Kids who head bang to calm themselves before sleep can benefit from a bedtime routine that includes a warm bath, quiet play, a few stories and a soothing backrub. If frustration is the root of the behavior, acknowledge and help identify her feelings, then offer a distraction. For example, the next time she starts up a tantrum because you won’t allow a third cookie, say, "I can see you’re feeling angry. You really wanted that cookie, didn’t you? If you’re still hungry, you can go choose something out of the fruit bowl." If these tactics don’t stop your toddler from putting her head to the wall, try comforting her by hugging, rocking or anything else that might soothe her. You know your child best, so try a few of your favorite strategies to see what’s most effective.

4. When To See a Doctor

No matter how unnerving it is to see your toddler smacking his head on the floor over and over, take heart in the fact that it’s almost always normal behavior. By age 2 or 3, head banging usually stops; only 5-percent of head-bangers who are healthy are still doing it by age 5, says Cleveland Clinic. However, if you’re concerned about head banging because you’ve heard it’s associated with autism, understand that head banging is just one of several behaviors that are usually seen together in autistic children. If your toddler keeps head banging despite hurting himself or the behavior continues beyond 4 years old, don’t hesitate to talk to your pediatrician about it. He can help you determine whether the habit is any cause for concern.

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