Why Would a Toddler Bang Their Head?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 11, 2023
4 min read

Head banging can be surprising or upsetting for parents to see. But in most cases, occasional head banging is not a sign of a problem. More likely, it’s a form of self-stimulation, self-comfort, or simply a way to release frustration.

If you notice this happening, the best thing to do is address whatever is upsetting your child. Protect them from injury as much as you can. Try not to make a big deal about the head banging or scold them for this behavior. 

Head banging is common and usually nothing to worry about. However, in some kids, it can signal a developmental problem. If a child who is head banging often also shows some kind of developmental delay or abnormal social interactions, it’s recommended that they see a doctor. 

Rhythmic movements. Head banging and body rocking usually happen at the same time. They are considered rhythmic movements. They can involve repetitive whole body rocking or repetitive head banging.

The typical way that toddlers head bang is when they are face down, banging their head into a pillow or mattress, or in an upright position, banging their head against the headboard. These movements will sometimes be accompanied by humming or other vocal sounds. Head banging usually stops when your child is distracted or when they fall asleep.

Up to 20% of toddlers bang their heads on purpose. Boys are more likely to do this than girls. Head banging usually starts during the second half of their first year of life. The behavior can continue for several months or even years. Toddlers usually outgrow head banging by the age of 3 years.

Toddlers bang their head for several different reasons:

Self-comfort. Most toddlers who bang their head do it to relax. The rhythmic motion helps them feel comfortable. They’ll often do it as they’re falling asleep, when they wake up in the middle of the night, or sometimes while they’re sleeping. 

Pain relief. Is your baby experiencing an ear infection or teething? They may bang their head to distract themselves from the pain. 

Frustration. Toddlers often haven’t learned how to express their emotions through words. Instead, they might use a physical expression through head banging. This is one way that toddlers self-soothe following a stressful event. 

Need for attention. If you see your child doing something self-destructive, this behavior will get your attention for obvious reasons. Your toddler may begin to notice that when they do this activity, you come running. They might then use it as an effective way to get your attention. 

Developmental problem. Head banging can sometimes be associated with autism or other developmental disorders. However, head banging alone does not mean your toddler has a serious problem. 

If your child is healthy and only bangs their head or rocks during nighttime or nap time, there is no need to be concerned. Children commonly do these things to help them fall asleep. 

Head banging and body rocking behavior is only considered a disorder if it markedly interferes with sleep or results in bodily injury.

When you notice your toddler banging their head, there are a few things you can try: 

Give your toddler attention. You want to give your toddler plenty of positive attention, just not when they’re head banging. If you can tell they're banging their head to get your attention, try not to make a big deal out of it. Your strong reaction could reinforce the behavior and make them more likely to keep doing it. 

Given that your toddler is still very, avoid yelling at them or harshly scolding them. They’re too young to fully understand the situation. 

Protect your child from injury. Check the screws and bolts on your toddler’s crib to make sure their head banging has not loosened anything. Try placing a blanket or quilt between the crib and wall to reduce noise and protect the wall from wear and tear. 

Don’t put a pillow or blankets in the crib because these can be a choking hazard. If you want to use bumpers on their crib to soften the blow when they head bang, make sure these are thin, firm, and securely tied to the crib's railings. 

Incorporate rhythm in other ways. If your toddler enjoys the rhythm of banging their head, they’ll likely enjoy other rhythms like music, dancing, or drumming. Try to have fun with them and incorporate different activities.  Make sure your toddler gets plenty of physical exercise during the day to help them use up some of that pent-up energy.

Create a soothing bedtime routine. You can help your toddler relax before bedtime by setting up a consistent bedtime routine. Try a warm bath, calm rocking on your lap, story time, or playing soft music. While they’re falling asleep, try gently rubbing their back or stroking their forehead. 

Try not to worry. Head banging is usually self-regulated, meaning that your toddler knows their pain tolerance. If it hurts, they’ll likely stop or soften the banging on their own. 

If your toddler bangs their head a lot during the day or continues to bang their head even though they’re hurting themselves, you may have cause for concern. 

Though it's uncommon, head banging can be associated with autism and other developmental disorders. These sometimes become apparent during the toddler and preschool years.