Does your baby or toddler deliberately bang their head? Judy Clark, a Sleep Sense consultant, explains the most common causes and how you should respond when it happens.

Toddler tantrums can be a difficult thing to deal with. The screaming and failing are bad enough, but what do you do if your child starts hitting their head in anger or frustration? The unspoken fear is that it may cause long term harm.

Despite being distressing to watch, it is very common for babies and toddlers between the ages of 6 months and 24 months intentionally bang their heads – up to 20 per cent of healthy children will do so at some point. This behaviour could happen only once or twice, or could continue for years. However, it most cases it will settle down by the age of three or four.

What causes a child to head bang?

There can be a number of reasons why a child may bang their head on purpose, but the most common are:

Comfort

You may have noticed how swaying in a rocking chair or falling asleep on a boat can have a soothing effect? The rhythmic movement can be calming and way to help you relax. Head banging or body rocking has a similar effect on children. The repetitive motion helps them feel at ease and can be pleasurable to a degree (the desire for this motion is called our kinesthetic drive).

Anger or frustration

Young children who do not have the verbal skills need to a way to express their strongest emotions, just like adults. While crying provides some release, head banging also helps them vent these feeling.

Pain

Some babies and toddler head bang as a way to self-soothe when they are in pain, perhaps due to teething pain or earache. Again, the movement may have a soothing effect, and it may additional provide a distraction from the pain they are feeling elsewhere.

Attention

Older toddlers who have noticed that the head banging upsets you might carry on doing it to attract your attention. The more you try to stop them, the more they may see it as a way to keep you focused on them.

Behavioural or developmental

In very rare cases, repeated head banging can be a sign of an underlying behavioral or developmental issue such as autism. If you notice your child having another other difficulties, it’s a good idea to get advice from a health care professional, especially if the head banging continues beyond the age of four.

What should I do?

Generally, children who bang their heads do not cause themselves harm, as they do not bang hard enough to cause actual pain or injury.

Avoid lining the side of the bed or cot with pillows or padding, as this can create a far more serious suffocation risk. Remember that your child is only banging hard enough to sooth themselves.

Give your little one extra attention when they are not banging. This could help eliminate the banging if it arises from a need for close contact. A few extra minutes playing or reading a book together can go a long way to giving your child what she needs.

Try not to get too upset when the actual banging is taking place, as this could serve to negatively reinforcement the behaviour. Just make sure that they are in a safe place and try to distract her with something else if you can. If not, let the banging run its course and carry on with your day as if it didn’t happen.

Offer your child other solutions to their distress, such as cuddling, playing calming music, a warm bath, singing or telling stories.

Once your child is able to speak, they will most likely stop head banging. Remember: this a just another common way of expressing anger, frustration or sadness. Head banging might look alarming, in almost all case it is perfectly safe, normal, and harmless.