Head Banging: Strategies to ensure safety and help calm

While it is hard and sometimes frightening to watch a child engage in head banging, please be reassured to know:
1) Research and experience show —

  • Head banging is not unusual in healthy toddlers
  • Rarely do children bang hard enough to hurt themselves (though your priority must always be safety)

2) Toddlers may engage in head banging—

  • In response to stress or over-stimulation
  • To test balance (inner ear)
  • To self-soothe (like rocking, the rhythm can be comforting)
  • To release tension, often in order to fall asleep

What to Do

(1) Ensure safety while (2) not giving attention to the behavior.

Check for safety: If needed, make it safe by moving the child to a soft surface or removing any potentially dangerous nearby objects.

Remove any stressors: Assess the environment and, if it is loud and/or busy (causing over-stimulation) or otherwise stressful to the child, move the child to a quieter, more manageable place.

Wait it out or help the child to calm (his response will let you know which works best): If your child is safe, you can wait out the banging, but, for most parents, this is too hard. The instinct is to separate the child from the surface he is banging on. It is perfectly okay to follow this instinct (safely). Sometimes the interruption itself will be enough to distract the child from the behavior.

Other ways to help calm the child are to offer a distraction. Jumping, dancing, marching and rhythm games offer a safe way for the child to release energy or soothe tension. Also, you can try music and/or rocking. If your child will let you hug and rock him, this can help calm. Music (often just your voice singing) can also soothe the built-up tension and frustration that led to the behavior.

Do your best not to give attention to the behavior:

  • Keep your response brief
  • Let the child move on when it is finished—do not talk about it when it is over
  • When reflecting on it with other adults, do not talk about it in front of your child.

When to Seek Help

Consult your pediatrician:

  • If it happens frequently (more than on occasion and without a clear stressor such as hunger, tiredness or frustration)
  • If it leads to injury (bruising, cuts, pain)
  • If your child has additional behaviors that disrupt his day
  • If it continues into age 3 and 4
  • If your gut tells you to (you know your child better than anyone: trust your instincts)