Why your baby or toddler is banging their head

It can be alarming, but head banging is common in babies and toddlers – here's why it happens, what you can do about it, and when to call the doctor.

A toddler looking upset, with his hand on his head.
Photo credit: © Thinkstock/iStockphoto

You've probably seen your baby or toddler bump their head on quite a few things as they've learned to sit, stand, crawl, and walk – but what does it mean when they purposely bang their head on something? It can be alarming to witness, for sure, but head banging is usually not something to be overly concerned about: Young children often bang their heads to self-soothe at nighttime, get attention or express frustration during the day, or sometimes just to see how it feels.

Read on to learn more about why your baby or toddler might be banging their head, and what you can do if you see it happening.

Advertisement | page continues below

What is head banging?

Head banging is a common behavior some children use to self-comfort or self-stimulate. Although it may look alarming, it's usually nothing to worry about. As many as 20 percent of babies and toddlers bang their heads on purpose. Boys are more likely to do it than girls, though it's not clear why.

Head banging often starts around 6 months and peaks between 18 and 24 months. Your child's head banging habit may last for several months or years, though most outgrow it by age 5.

Head banging usually happens when your baby goes down for a nap, goes to sleep for the night, or shortly after waking. This is because your baby is self-soothing, or winding themselves down for sleep. They might keep it up for just a few minutes or for as long as an hour. Head banging can also happen during the day as your baby's way of communicating with you that they're upset, frustrated, or in pain.

What makes babies bang their heads?

Experts speculate that the rhythmic back-and-forth movement of head banging may soothe a baby and help them fall asleep. Your baby may also bang their head to distract themselves from pain if they're teething or have an ear infection, for example.

Head banging in babies often looks like one of the following:

  • They repeatedly bang their head into the mattress
  • They sit up and bang the back of their head against the crib
  • They rock back and forth on their hands and knees, banging their head as they rock forward
  • They lie on their back and roll their head from side to side, sometimes forcefully enough to bang the crib against the wall and leave a bald spot on the back of their head
  • They hit their head with their hand

What makes toddlers bang their heads?

There are a few possible reasons why your toddler may bang their head:

Advertisement | page continues below

Self-comfort. As strange as it may sound, most toddlers who indulge in this behavior do it to relax. They bang their head rhythmically as they're falling asleep, when they wake up in the middle of the night, or even while sleeping. Some rock on all fours as well. Developmental experts believe that the rhythmic motion, like rocking in a chair, may help your toddler soothe themselves.

Pain relief. Your toddler may also bang their head if they're in pain – from teething or an ear infection, for example. Head banging seems to help kids feel better, perhaps by distracting them from the discomfort in their mouth or ear.

Frustration. If your toddler bangs their head during temper tantrums, they're probably trying to vent some strong emotions. They haven't yet learned to express their feelings through words, so they're using physical actions. And again, they may be comforting themselves during this very stressful event.

A need for attention. Like screaming, ongoing head banging may also be a way for your toddler to get attention. Understandably, you may tend to become solicitous when you see your child doing something that appears self-destructive. And since they like it when you fuss over their behavior, they may continue the head banging in order to get the attention they want.

A developmental problem. Head banging can be associated with autism and other developmental disorders – but in most of these cases, it's just one of many behavioral red flags. Rarely does head banging alone signal a serious problem.

Advertisement | page continues below

What to do about head banging

Most kids will grow out of head banging in time, but here's what to do to try to alleviate the behavior:

Give your child your attention – but not when they're head banging. Head banging can be an attention-seeking behavior, so try not to fuss over your baby every time they do it. If the sound of your baby banging their head bothers you, move the crib away from the wall.

If your child is a toddler, this tip still holds – but make sure they get plenty of positive attention from you when they're not banging their head. If they still bang their head to get your attention, though, try not to make a big deal about it, or you may reinforce the behavior. Even if you can't completely disregard the behavior, don't scold or punish them for it. They're too young to understand the situation, and your disapproval may only make matters worse.

Start a soothing bedtime routine. Help your baby find other ways to unwind and comfort themselves, especially if they're having trouble "coming down" from a busy day.

Give them a warm bath before bed, a gentle massage, or spend extra time rocking them before putting them down to sleep. Some babies also find it soothing to listen to lullabies or hear you sing softly. You may want to spend a few minutes before bed rubbing their back or stroking their forehead.

Advertisement | page continues below

Protect your child from injury. Check all the screws and bolts on your toddler's crib once a month or more to make sure their rocking and head-banging aren't loosening anything. You can also put rubber casters on the crib legs and hang a soft fabric or quilt between the crib and the wall to reduce noise and to minimize wear and tear on the walls and floor.

If your child is less than 1 year old, don't line their crib with soft pillows, blankets, and crib bumpers; these can all pose a suffocation hazard and raise the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). (In fact, the government recently passed an act banning the manufacture and sale of crib bumpers.)

Help foster your child's love of rhythm in other ways. Your child clearly likes a good steady beat, so help them find other outlets for their love of rhythm. Babies often like the sound of a metronome at night, so you might try putting one in their room to give them the comfort of a steady rhythm.

Toddlers usually love dancing, marching, and drumming or clapping to music together. Make sure your child gets lots of physical exercise during the day, too, to help them burn off some of the nervous energy that may feed their head banging.

Try not to worry. Your child may get a bruise or two, but don't worry – head banging is usually a "self-regulating" behavior. This means your child is unlikely to hit their head hard enough to seriously injure themselves. They know their threshold for pain and will pull back on the throttle if the banging hurts.

Advertisement | page continues below

When to call the doctor about head banging

It's a good idea to mention head banging to your baby's doctor, just to be on the safe side. Head banging in babies is rarely a sign of a developmental or emotional problem (though it can be upsetting to watch). In rare cases, it can be a sign of a larger problem.

You should notify your child's doctor if:

In toddlers, head banging is still usually considered normal, but it's best brought up with your child's doctor if they bang their head a lot during the day or continue to bang their head even though they're hurting themselves. Though it's uncommon, head banging can be associated with autism and other developmental disorders, which sometimes become apparent during the toddler and preschool years.

You'll likely notice other signs of developmental delays, though, in addition to head banging. For example, autistic children generally don't relate well to people. They often aren't interested in physical contact with their parents and seem to look through people rather than at them. If you notice that your child is losing physical abilities, language, or other skills they've acquired; if they're becoming increasingly withdrawn; or if they're consistently delayed in achieving common developmental milestones, check with their doctor.

Advertisement | page continues below

Finally, sometimes head banging in babies and toddlers during the night is a sign of sleep-related rhythmic movement disorder. This is very common in young children – experts have found that it affects some 59 percent of babies at 9 months old, but decreases to 5 percent of kids by age 5 – and usually doesn't require any intervention unless they're hurting themselves. In addition to head banging, kids with this disorder may also hum loudly, rock their body back and forth, or perform other repeated bodily movements while they're asleep or falling asleep.

Read more:

Follow your baby's amazing development

BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

American Academy of Family Physicians. 2014. Common Sleep Disorders in Children. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 2021. What is sleep rhythmic movement disorder? a new window [Accessed May 2022]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2021. How to Keep Your Sleeping Baby Safe: AAP Policy Explained. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Head Banging and Body Rocking. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Jefferson University Hospitals. Undated. Children with Parasomnia. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Jefferson University Hospitals. Undated. Sleep-Related Rhythmic Movement Disorder in Children. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Medscape. 2021. Childhood habit behaviors and stereotypic movement disorder. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. 2005. The changing concept of sudden infant death syndrome: Diagnostic coding shifts, controversies regarding the sleeping environment, and new variables to consider in reducing risk. Pediatrics 116(5):1245-55. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Tufts Medical Center. Undated. Head Banging. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

University of Michigan Health System. 2018. Bad habits/annoying behaviors. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Hayward-Koennecke, Helen K. et al. 2019. Sleep-Related Rhythmic Movement Disorder in Triplets: Evidence for Genetic Predisposition? Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. a new window [Accessed May 2022]

Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley is a freelance health and parenting writer from Connecticut, where she lives with a lot of boys (a husband, three sons, and a golden retriever). When she isn't writing, Bradley is usually homeschooling, binge-watching TV shows, and taking care of her many houseplants. She might also be baking a cake.