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Toddlers are known for their strange behavior. One of the most common behaviors, and one that causes parents the most concern, is when toddlers slam their heads against things or hit themselves in the head. The question on many parents’ minds is “why does my baby do this?” This article will give you some answers to this question and help you understand why your toddler may be self-harming.
Toddlers hit themselves in the head because they’re stressed, unwell, or looking for attention. Hitting themselves can be part of temper tantrums; often caused by their inability to vocalize needs. Most head banging is part of normal development.
Why does my baby bang his head?
- They have underdeveloped communication skills – Children lack the experience and language skills to articulate their feelings. When children are feeling strong emotions but don’t know how to express them with words, hitting themselves in frustration can be one way for children to communicate what they’re feeling.
- They’re looking for physical experiences – Some children may seek out physical experiences to stimulate the sense of touch – they’re ‘sensory-seekers’. Hitting themselves is one of the ways to fulfill the need to stimulate this sense. Other kids might turn to tapping their hands, rocking back and forth, sticking themselves with needles, hitting others, or sliding down the banister when they’re stressed from a long day.
- They get a reaction – Toddlers like attention! One way to get it is by hitting themselves. It’s not that their intentions are malevolent, but if you had a strong reaction every time your toddler hit themself, they might be repeating this behavior in order to keep getting attention from you. Your reaction doesn’t have to be negative either – you may have laughed at them, or they’re copying someone else who got a positive reaction.
- They’re in pain – Toddlers sometimes hit themselves when they are in pain. For example, if a toddler hits themselves on the side of their head, an ear infection could be to blame. Teething babies and toddlers may also hit themselves in the hopes of finding some relief for their sore gums.
- They’re growing their understanding of control – They may be looking for a sense of greater control over their environment. It may be that something has happened recently where your child hasn’t had as much autonomy over the things happening during their day.
- They’re self-soothing. Rhythmic head banging could be a way for them to calm themselves down or expend some of their pent-up energy. The repetitive movement mimics the feeling of being in the womb, which can soothe them.
How can I stop my baby from hurting themselves?
Your child is trying to communicate what’s bothering them – that they’re sick, frustrated, in pain, or seeking sensory input. Here are some things to consider, and actions to take, to stop your baby from hurting themselves and communicate their needs in other ways.
- Make sure they’re safe. You’ll first want to make sure your child is safe before coming up with long-term solutions. Sensory-seekers could benefit from a bear hug to prevent them from being able to hit themselves. (Not a tight hug, but firm enough to break their cycle) Be sure to also check that their environment is free of sharp corners or edges. (which you may have already done in child-proofing!)
- Identify if it is attention-seeking behavior. Kids sometimes do things to get a reaction out of you. If so, it might be best not to acknowledge the behavior and wait them out, provided they’re safe. Be sure not to abandon them – stay nearby so they know you’re supporting them, but keep doing your own thing so you’re not acknowledging and rewarding the behavior.
- Address their core needs. If your child is hitting themselves, they might be hungry, cold, or thirsty. You should fix these problems first. Make them comfortable, then show them how to communicate their need in another way. You may also find if they’re hitting themselves because of a core physical need, there will be patterns in their behavior. Do they hit themselves when they’re hungry, tired, or wet? Try to anticipate these situations ahead of time.
- Point them in a different direction. When that puzzle piece just isn’t fitting, they may try hitting themselves out of frustration. They are looking for an outlet to take out that aggression, so provide them with one. An appropriate way is to hit a pillow or stuffed animal, stomping your feet on the ground continuously, giving yourself a big squeeze, or press their hands together. Consider teaching some basic mindfulness techniques like deep breathing or counting to five to help them manage their stress.
- Show you understand. It is important to acknowledge how your child feels. When you do this, they will feel validated and know that you care about them, which can go a long way to calming the situation. (It works for adults, too!) If you find your toddler hitting themselves because they can’t have ice-cream for breakfast, call it out! “I wish I could have ice-cream for breakfast, too! It’s frustrating, hey?” Once things have calmed down you can explain why ice-cream isn’t brekky, and give them another way to express their frustration next time.
- Give these feelings a name. There are so many nuances to human emotion, which a challenge even for adults. When kids are having a hard time, they may not know how to express what they’re feeling and can often end up acting out in disruptive ways. Naming their feelings for them (e.g., “You seem really mad right now”) will help them feel understood, make it easier for you to help them through it, and hopefully mean less meltdowns in the future. They’re more likely to move on to talking to you about their frustrations with words.
- Find new ways to help your child communicate. You could use picture books about emotions, flashcards or feeling posters, use toys in role-play scenarios, or watch shows about emotions.
- Label your own emotions during the day. Your child looks to you as they learn – talk them through your own day by talking about what you’re feeling as you feel it.
Should I be concerned that my toddler hits themselves?
For the most part, a toddler who is hitting themselves is going through a normal developmental stage. (particularly if they’ve been practicing their coping strategies) You might need support from a doctor if your child has not been improving over time, or:
- You’ve tried different methods to stop the behavior and it’s not working, or things are getting worse
- Your child is exhibiting other troubling behaviors, such as biting themselves or hurting others
- The hitting has become more frequent over time
- You believe they’re causing lasting injuries to themselves
- They’re showing signs of fatigue or have sleep disruption, are more irritable than normal, have a fever, or don’t have their normal appetite
- Your child has other developmental disorders
- Other family members exhibit other similar behaviors
Talk to your child’s doctor or therapist if their head banging habit after trying some strategies to help them get through their frustrations. If you have seen other signs of a problem in your toddler, your best bet is to get some help.
After the typical once over they’ll ask questions about your child’s growth and development, then call in a specialist if they see any problems.
You don’t have to wait for your child to show lots of additional symptoms before you reach out for help and advice either. Your child’s doctor has seen it all, and can confidently identify that there might be something wrong.