Is your baby shaking their head side to side or up and down (like nodding)?
Baby head shaking can be part of normal development and behaviors (such as learning to control their neck) or be due to medical conditions, including various illnesses and neurodevelopmental issues.
In this article, we go through how to identify why your baby is shaking their head and how to address the headshaking (if needed).
Anything our babies do that is out of the ordinary is a cause for concern for most new parents. A sudden loss of muscle control of the neck or the frequent lolling or shaking of our baby’s head can undoubtedly be worrying and should be sorted out, even if, in most cases, it is nothing alarming.
Below are 13 reasons a baby shakes their head and what to do about it.
13 Possible Reasons for Frequent Headshaking in Babies and Recognizing Red Flags
In this article…
- 1. Learning Neck Control
- 2. Curiosity
- 3. Playing and Imitation
- 4. Non-Verbal Communication
- 5. Sleepy or Self-Soothing
- 6. Hungry or Trying to Latch
- 7. Ear Infections
- 8. Other Pain
- 9. Infantile Spasms
- 10. Rhythmic Movement Disorder
- 11. Neurodevelopmental Issues Including ASD
- 12. Neurological Disorders
- 13. Impaired Eyesight
- When Can a Baby’s Headshaking be a Warning Sign?
- How to Make My Baby Stop Shaking Head?
1. Learning Neck Control
Usually, by two months of age, a baby starts to smile and look up at their parents. At this time, babies’ neck muscles may not yet be strong enough for them to be able to keep their relatively large heads up for more extended time periods. Therefore, we can see the babies shaking their heads from side to side in an attempt to face up. This type of headshaking is not a cause for concern since most babies have sufficient neck control once they can roll over, which happens by the third to fourth month. Practicing tummy time is an efficient way to help the baby strengthen their back and weak neck muscles.
At around two months old, babies also become more aware of the people around them, making them look up more or turn their heads from side to side to get a glimpse of who or what is around them. Since their neck muscles are relatively weak, this new curiosity may lead to some shaking, even if the intention is simply to look in different directions.
3. Playing and imitation
Babies may also shake their heads when on their tummy, back, or in your arms as part of playing and imitation. In this case, the headshaking may be part of trying to imitate people around them or interacting.
Needless to say, this type of headshaking is no concern. If you think your baby is doing it too much, try to distract them by interacting in other ways, and remember not to reinforce the behavior by giving it too much attention.
4. Non-verbal Communication Skills
Of course, at some point, your baby will start communicating non-verbally, and shaking their head will actually mean no.
This usually happens at around 13 to 15 months, while nodding appears more difficult. Babies/toddlers start nodding to say yes at 16 to 18 months of age.
All these four above reasons are part of your baby’s development as they learn new skills. Not all babies will exhibit odd head movements, but some will.
5. Self-Soothing to Fall Asleep or Reduce Stress
Some babies loll their heads to sleep. This may look odd, but it is actually quite common. It appears as if some babies find these movements self-soothing.
This self-soothing behavior may also occur if the baby is overwhelmed or stressed. A great way to help your baby relax in such cases is baby massage (if your baby appreciates it – newborn babies often hate being naked, so this may work better for older babies)
This behavior is considered normal as long as your baby’s headshaking puts them to sleep rather than disturbs their sleep. There are instances when head rolling, shaking, or banging when falling asleep is so forceful that it qualifies as a disorder, as explained later in this article.
6. Hungry or Trying to Latch
Some babies get excited when they try to latch on their moms’ breasts. At first, this can be due to lack of muscle control, while after a while, you may see it when the baby is starving and excited to get FOOD!
Above reasons for a baby shaking their head are entirely normal and of no cause of concern. However, babies may also roll their heads in different directions due to illnesses or developmental disorders.
Let’s go through some more concerning reasons and the red flags to look for.
7. Ear Infection
An ear infection could also cause the baby to shake his head more frequently than usual. In this case, the shaking would be a response to pain caused by the inflammation of the eardrums, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), or the ears feeling clogged or itchy. Sometimes, a discharge comes out from their ear.
In addition to shaking their head, the baby may try to pull at their ear, be fussy, have trouble hearing, and have a fever.
If you suspect an ear infection, contact your child’s doctor.
8. Other pain
Other pain, such as a sore throat or teething pain, can also lead to your baby shaking their head side to side in an effort to mitigate the discomfort.
Look for signs of a throat infection or teething.
Babies can also get a headache.
9. Infantile spasms
In subtle cases, infantile spasms may look like head nodding (rather than shaking side to side). The baby may also roll their eyes or arch their back. Infantile spasms are a rare type of seizure that needs to be medically examined, diagnosed, and treated.
Infantile spasms may be caused by, e.g., brain injury due to abusive head trauma, infections, or genetic mutations.
Symptoms of a brain infection are e.g., that the baby tries to move their head but seems in discomfort or pain. Neck rigidity will most likely make them cry as they try to move their heads.
A call to the emergency room or his doctor is paramount if you suspect a brain infection.
Check for your child’s vitals like his sensorium (Is he awake or drowsy? Is he having seizures?), temperature (High-grade fever?), and breathing (Is he breathing fast or slow?).
If your baby may have a head injury from, e.g., falling from the bed or changing table, or if there is a chance that your baby has been shaken hard (shaken baby syndrome), it is of utmost importance to contact your baby’s health care provider.
10. Rhythmic Movement Disorders (RMD)
While shaking the head to fall asleep is considered normal infant behavior in most cases, it can also sometimes qualify as an insomnia sleep disorder. It usually occurs when the child is transitioning to sleep or already asleep and can include head shaking from side to side or other repetitive motions, including head banging, or body rocking or rolling.
There are no tests to diagnose the RMD, but rather several criteria, including that the movements are frequent and strong enough to interfere with sleep, impair daytime alertness, or place the patient at risk of bodily injury.
There are variations of this, including hitting the head when tired.
Call your healthcare provider for medical advice.
11. Neurodevelopmental Issues including ASD
Repetitive and frequent lolling or headshaking may indicate neurodevelopmental issues, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or Tourette’s Syndrome.
When you suspect these, you must look for other signs such as sudden jerking movements, lack of eye contact, frequent head banging, tics (frequent jerky hand gestures or face or body movements), stacking, lining of things, and spinning, among others.
Reach out to your doctor for consultation and diagnosis for early intervention in these cases is vital for their development.
On a side note, Tourette’s Syndrome and ADHD are usually diagnosed at the age range of 5 to 7 years of age. However, some cases manifest symptoms in toddlers early on. Signs of autism spectrum disorder may appear already in babies and toddlers.
Additionally, Tourette’s Syndrome, ADHD, and ASD have overlapping signs and symptoms; hence, it is essential to consult a specialist early.
12. Neurological disorders
In rare cases, headshaking can be a sign of a neurological disorder. Below are two neurological disorders that have head-shaking as one of the symptoms.
Benign myoclonic epilepsy in infancy
This is a rare form of epilepsy where the seizure usually begins from 4 months to 3 years of age, but most often between 1 and 2 years of age.
Children with this condition have myoclonic jerks and seizures, including head nodding. In some cases, eye-rolling is also present.
The children need to be diagnosed and treated; for most children, the seizures will stop when they are around 5 or 6 years old.
Rhombencephalosynapsis (RES) is a midline brain malformation that presents by, amongst others, head-shaking, unusual eye movements, and various degrees of developmental delays.
A study published in 2013 (referenced below) found head-shaking to be a marker for RES in 50 of 59 patients, even years before diagnosis. The patients were between 6 months and 32 years old. In 65% of the cases, repetitive headshaking in a figure-8 or side-to-side movement had developed during their first year of life.
RES is a rare condition, but still one to consider if there are other concerning symptoms present as well.
13. Impaired Eyesight
Another possible developmental reason is impaired eyesight. For example, blind children sometimes engage in repetitive behaviors like head shaking. But then again, blindness or poor vision would also have other symptoms.
These signs warrant medical consultation at the earliest possible time. The earlier you have the diagnosis and intervention, the better your child can cope with the world.
When Can a Baby’s Headshaking Be a Warning Sign?
Here are some red flags that you have to look out for when headshaking becomes frequent:
- Frequent head shaking with fever or neck rigidity
- No sustained eye contact with the people around him
- Your baby or toddler is not aware of his environment or the people around him
- Your child fails to reach other developmental milestones outlined by your doctor
- Your child doesn’t respond to your voice, as well as other sounds
- Sudden jerky movements and out-of-control shouting
- Presence of inappropriate body or facial movements
- Cannot stay in one place
- Frequent head-banging to the extent of hurting himself in the process
If you feel that your toddler or baby exhibits these signs, do not postpone a call to a pediatrician. Early intervention is key for children with developmental concerns.
How to Make My Baby Stop Shaking Head?
Investigating the possible causes of your baby’s headshaking is important. Our actions will vary depending on the cause of this action.
Developmental reasons, such as trying to latch, look around, or play while the neck muscles are still a bit too weak, are not a cause for concern. Encourage your baby’s development by playing, introducing tummy time, and simply interacting with your baby. When you see them lolling their head to sleep, carrying or patting them and singing a lullaby should do the trick.
If you believe that the headshaking is for attention and part of imitating and playing, remember not to reinforce this particular movement (in case you think it has become too much). Try not to react to your baby’s headshaking and instead distract with other types of interaction.
However, when you see red flags, it should be reiterated that calling your doctor is of utmost priority. Early interventions for both infections and neurodevelopmental issues can save your children’s lives.
- Baby Suddenly Shaking
- Baby’s Arm is Shaking: 12 Important Reasons to Investigate
- Baby Shakes After Waking Up: 9 Reasons to Investigate
- Signs of Autism in Babies and Toddlers
- My Baby is Rolling Eyes!? 15 Reasons To Check, When to Worry
- Seizures in Children | Symptoms & Causes
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Tourette Syndrome
- Epilepsy.org: Benign myoclonic epilepsy in infancy
- Tully HM, Dempsey JC, Ishak GE, Adam MP, Mink JW, Dobyns WB, Gospe SM Jr, Weiss A, Phillips JO, Doherty D. Persistent figure-eight and side-to-side head shaking is a marker for rhombencephalosynapsis. Mov Disord. 2013 Dec;28(14):2019-23. doi: 10.1002/mds.25634. Epub 2013 Sep 18. PMID: 24105968; PMCID: PMC5510988.
- ConnectCenter: Repetitive Behaviors in Children Who are Blind or Low Vision: What Are They?
- Kettner, Viktoria & Carpendale, Jeremy. (2013). Developing gestures for no and yes: Head shaking and nodding in infancy. Gesture. 13. 10.1075/gest.13.2.04ket.
Is your baby shaking the head, too? Add your comments below; a lot of parents already have! :-)
Paula Dennholt founded Easy Baby Life in 2006 and has been a passionate parenting and pregnancy writer since then. Her parenting approach and writing are based on studies in cognitive-behavioral models and therapy for children and her experience as a mother and stepmother. Life as a parent has convinced her of how crucial it is to put relationships before rules. She strongly believes in positive parenting and a science-based approach.
Paula cooperates with a team of pediatricians who assist in reviewing and writing articles.