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Behavior Modification for Head Banging in Toddlers

by Shellie Braeuner

You protected your sweet baby’s head from the moment of birth. Now, that same sweet baby is a toddler who rhythmically bangs her head on the side of her bed or even the floor. It’s disturbing to watch. Many parents worry that it is a sign of a serious problem. However, pediatric instructor Dr. Larissa Hirsch reassures parents that they needn't worry. If the child is healthy and meeting all other developmental milestones, the behavior isn’t all that worrisome.

Self Soothing

Not all head banging is the same. Some toddlers softly bang their heads against the side of the bed or against the mattress before going to sleep. The Cleveland Clinic points out that this behavior can be an example of self-soothing. It helps the child use up the last of his energy before nodding off to sleep. Usually, the child will bang her head against the mattress before going to sleep. If she is sitting up, she might rock or lightly bang her head against the headboard.

Temper Tantrums

A child might also bang his head during a temper tantrum or in moments of frustration. During toddlerhood, children begin to experience strong emotions and most aren’t equipped with the words to express their feelings. Hirsch points out that head banging makes frustration clear to everyone without saying a word.

Ignoring the Behavior

Most self-soothing behavior will disappear as the child grows. Ignoring the behavior is often the most helpful way to it. In fact, correcting the child at nap time could cause the child to continue banging. When a parent continually goes in and interacts with the child, she gets your full and undivided attention when she is bored or should be sleeping. This reinforces the behavior. In much the same way, the child that bangs her head in frustration will continue if she learns that Mom will give her treats or attention for the behavior.

When to Intervene

If the child hurts himself during a banging episode, talk to your pediatrician. At no time should a child be allowed to continue to hurt himself. In addition, if the toddler bangs her head and also lags behind in other social or physical milestones, it is important to talk to your doctor. Head banging with other delays may indicate developmental disorders. The earlier you intervene, the better the long-term prognosis for the child.

Dealing with Banging

Help the child to deal with the behavior in other ways. If the child bangs his head before sleep, create a new bedtime routine. Try reading stories, singing slow songs and even saying prayers. These are all designed to help the child retrain his body and create new ways to soothe himself before sleep. You can help your child learn to express himself in other ways, according to AskDrSears.com. Dr. William Sears encourages parents to plan. Give him soft toys to squeeze. Instead of giving the child an ultimatum, try to give him choices whenever possible. For example, if the toddler is reaching for a cookie, don’t say "no." Say: “We are saving those for later. Would you like a slice of apple or a cracker?” This lets him know that he has been heard and that he may get a cookie at some time in the future. It also distracts him with a new choice.

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