Dr. Greene's Answer
There are moments in a child’s development that engender fear in her parents: those weeks before she was born when we wonder if she will really be okay, those moments after you have handed her car keys and she drives off with her boyfriend. For parents whose children develop head banging, this is one of those moments.
Every week someone mentions this concern to me (usually in an off-hand way) and then watches to see if I am alarmed. The unspoken fear: autism.
Up to 20 percent of healthy children are head-bangers for a time (Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, Jul 1983). Head-banging appears in the latter half of the first year of life and generally ends spontaneously by four years of age. Boys are three or four times more likely to be head-bangers than girls.
The child seems compelled to rhythmically move his head against a solid object such as a wall or the side of a crib. Often he rocks his entire body. For most children it occurs at sleepy times or when upset (often as part of tantrums). This behavior can last for minutes at a time — or sometimes for hours. It can even continue once the child has fallen asleep.
Parents’ fear of autism makes sense. Head-banging, head-rolling, and body rocking are each far more common in autistic children. But these rhythmic motor activities are also normal behaviors in healthy infants and young children (and young monkeys for that matter!). This behavior is abnormal, though, if it persists beyond the early years. Any child who is still head-banging beyond three years of age deserves further evaluation.
Is Head Banging a Normal Part of Development or Early Sign of Autism?
Researchers at Cambridge University have found an easy and early way to detect autism. Three hallmark behaviors are the key signs:
- Lack of pointing — by fourteen months of age most children will point at objects in order to get another person to look.
- Lack of gaze-following — by fourteen months, infants will often turn to look in the same direction an adult is looking.
- Lack of pretend play — by fourteen months children will begin to play using object substitution, e.g. pretending to comb the hair with a block.
All three behaviors are typically absent in children with autism.
If a child begins even one of these three behaviors by 18 months, the chances of ever developing true autism are vanishingly small. (British Journal of Psychiatry, Feb 1996)
Why Do Kids without Autism Bang their Heads?
Many theories have been put forward to explain this common behavior. Perhaps the rocking and even the head-banging provide a form of pleasure related to the movement. This joy in movement is called our kinesthetic drive. All infants are rocked by their mothers when they are carried about in utero. Later on, they enjoy being held and rocked in their parents’ arms. Movement activities continue as kids grow: the pleasure of jump rope, swings, slides, amusement park rides (bumper cars!), and dancing. These activities all engage the vestibular system of the brain. The amount and type of movement that provides pleasure varies from child to child.
Kids who are understimulated (those who are blind, deaf, bored, or lonely) head bang for stimulation. But children who are overstimulated (in an overwhelming environment) find these rhythmic movements soothing. These are some of the reasons why we see more head banging in kids with developmental delays or neglect.
For some children, head-banging is a way to release tension and prepare for sleep. Some kids head-bang for relief when they are teething or have an ear infection (Primary Pediatric Care, Mosby 1992). Some kids bang their heads out of frustration or anger, as in a temper tantrum. Head-banging is an effective attention-seeking maneuver. The more reaction children get from parents or other adults, the more likely they are to continue this habit.
Generally, healthy children do not head-bang in order to injure themselves.
Will They Hurt Themselves?
Toddlers don’t seriously injure themselves from this habit. Pain prevents them from banging too hard, but even if it didn’t, children under 3 don’t generate enough force to cause brain damage or neurologic problems. The front or front/side of the head is the most frequently struck. Toddler heads are built to take all of the minor head trauma that is a normal part of learning to walk and climb. Healthy infants and toddlers who are head-bangers grow up to be coordinated and completely normal children.
How Can You Get Head Banging to Stop?
Most children will outgrow the habit on their own. You can speed up this process by reacting to it in a matter-of-fact way. Pretend not to notice. And if it is part of a tantrum, do not give her whatever she threw the tantrum to get. When you notice her head-banging, you might be able to get her to stop for the moment by distracting her or engaging her in a different activity. By decreasing the amount of time she spends in this habitual activity, she will outgrow it more quickly.
Will it Affect Their Development?
Curiously, one large study of this habit in 525 healthy children found head-bangers to be measurably advanced in their gross motor development compared to their peers (Journal of Pediatrics; 93(4), Oct 1978). Specifically, this study of children who body-rock, head-bang, and head-roll found that body-rocking and head-banging behavior was associated with a statistically significant difference in gross motor development. For children who head-bang, the study showed they were able to hold their head up without support and walk without support earlier than children who do not head-bang. So Jane, the very behavior that was frightening could be a sign of something positive.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that teaching our children to head-bang will make them smarter! But this study reminds us that stimulating our children’s bodies and minds from an early age can have a profound impact on their development.
Note: If your child has hit their head hard enough that you are wondering if you should call their pediatrician, follow this link for guidelines on when to call the doctor after a child hits their head.