A baby shaking head can be due to many possibilities — normal developmental milestones, learning to control neck activity, illness, or neurodevelopmental issues. In this article, you learn how to identify the reason, and how to address the head-shaking (if needed).
Anything that our babies do that is out of the ordinary is a cause for concern for most parents. It can send us into panic mode only parents can understand. A sudden loss of muscle control of the neck or the frequent lolling or shaking of our baby’s head can make us go from zero to panic in seconds.
Let us review the possible reasons for this situation. Below are 10 reasons why a baby shakes his or her head.
10 Possible Reasons for Frequent Head-Shaking in Babies and Recognizing Red Flags
In this article…
- 1. Learning Neck Control
- 2. Playing and Imitation
- 3. Sleepy or Self-Soothing
- 4. Non-Verbal Communication
- 5. Hungry or Trying to Latch
- 6. Ear or Brain Infections
- 7. Rhythmic Movement Disorder
- 8. Neurodevelopmental Issues
- 9. Neurological Disorders
- 10. Imparied Eyesight
- When Can Head-Shaking be a Warning Sign?
- How to Make My Baby Stop Shaking Head?
1. Learning Neck Control
Normally, by 2 months of age, a baby starts to smile and look up at their parents. Sometimes, these babies have heavier than usual heads (overweight babies), and weaker neck muscles, hence we can see them shaking their heads from side to side. The neck that cannot hold the head up results in moving the head from side to side in an attempt to face up. But this is not a cause for concern, since most babies have sufficient neck control once they are able to roll over, which happens by the third to fourth month.
At around 2 months old, babies are start to become more aware of the people around them, making them look up more or turn their heads from side to side. This is their way of trying to get a glimpse of who or what is around them. This is one of the best times in watching our babies. They develop naturally and on their own. So, sit back and relax, and enjoy the show.
2.Playing and imitation
Babies may also shake their heads when on tummy or back 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 head-shaking is no concern. If you think your baby is doing it too much, try to distract by interacting in other ways, and remember to not reinforce the behavior by giving it too much attention.
3. Sleepy or Self-Soothing to Fall Asleep
We can notice our babies lolling their heads to sleep, which is common and normal. It appears as if some babies find these movements self-soothing.
While this is common and normal behavior for infants, there are situations the head rolling is so frequent and forcefull that it disturbs the child’s sleep. In such a case, the headshaking may qualify as a rhythmic movement disorder.
4. Non-verbal Communication
Of course, at point, your baby will start communicating non-verbally, and shaking their head will actually mean no. This usually happen at around 13 to 15 months of age, while nodding appears to be more difficult. Babies/toodlers start nodding to say yes at 16 to 18 months of age.
5. 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 really hungry and excited to get FOOD! Hence, we can also see a bit of head shaking in those scenarios. All these are common and normal.
A red flag would be if they cannot move their heads or lift their heads up, accompanied by incessant crying, which is the next item in this article.
6. Ear or Brain Infections
A baby trying to move his head but seem to be in discomfort or in pain can indicate an infection. Neck rigidity will most likely make them cry as they try to move their heads from side to side. This usually indicates brain infections.
A call to the emergency room or his doctor is of utmost importance at this point.
An ear infection could also cause the baby to shake his head, more frequently than normal. Sometime, there is a ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or a discharge coming out from his ear, or pain caused by an inflammation of the ear drums, or an itch in his ear canal that he tries to look for a head position that affords him comfort.
Things that you can do to help your baby is to stay calm. Call your family doctor or his pediatrician.
Check for his vitals like his sensorium (Is he awake or drowsy? Is he having seizures?), temperature (High grade fever?), breathing (Is he breathing fast or slow?). Also, you can check his head for any possible signs of infection (wounds, inflammation, abscess), or discharges from his ear (pus, clear discharges).
Try to review the past few days for any indication of anything out of the ordinary. These are the things that will be asked of you once you call your healthcare provider.
7. Rhythmic Movement Disorder (RMD)
While shaking 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 headshaking from side to side, or other repetivite motions, including head bangning, or body rocking or rolling.
There are no tests to diagnose the RMD, but rather a number of critera, 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. (Source)
8. Neurodevelopmental Issues
Repetitive and frequent lolling or head-shaking may indicate neurodevelopmental abnormalities. This can include Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or Tourette’s Syndrome.
When you suspect these, you have to 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, 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. Additionally, Tourette’s Syndrome, ADHD, and ASD have overlapping signs and symptoms, hence it is important to consult a specialist early.
9. Neurological disorders
In rare cases, head-shaking 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 begin from 4 months to 3 years of age, but most often between 1 and 2 years of age.
Children with this condition have myoclonic seizures including head nodding. In some cases, eye-rolling is also present.
The children need to be diagnosed and treated and for most children, the seizures will stoop when they are around 5 or 6 years old.
Rhombencephalosynapsis (RES) is a midline brain malformation which presents by, amongst others, head-shaking, unusual eye-movements and various degrees of developmental delays.
A study published in 2013 found head-shaking to be a marker for RES in 50 of 59 patients even years before dignosis. 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. (Source)
This is a rare condition, but still one to consider if there are other concerning symptoms present as well.
10. Impaired Eyesight
Another possible developmental reason is impaired eyesight. For example, blind children sometimes engage in repetitive behaviors, such as head shaking. But then again, deafness or blindness would have other symptoms as well.
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 Head-Shaking be a Warning Sign?
Here are some red flags that you have to look out for when head-shaking 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?
It is always important to investigate the possible causes for your baby’s head-shaking. Our consequent actions will vary depending on the cause for this action.
When he is just trying to latch or look around and lift his head, then it’s not a cause for concern at all. If anything, it is the normal developmental process for babies. When you see him lolling his head to sleep, carrying him and singing a lullaby should do the trick. Put him in a comfortable position and your baby will doze off soon.
If you believe that the head-shaking 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 to not react to your baby’s head-shaking 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 & Toddler Health Book Tips
It can be quite comforting and helpful to have a kids’ health reference book at home! Here are a few quality books:
- The Big Book of Symptoms: A-Z Guide to Your Child’s Health
- Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, 6th Edition: Birth to Age 5
- Your Child’s Health: The Parents’ One-Stop Reference Guide to: Symptoms, Emergencies, Common Illnesses, Behavior Problems, and Healthy Development
Here are some other ways babies may be shaking and what to think about it:
- Baby Suddenly Shaking
- Baby’s Arm Shaking – Dangerous?
- Signs of autism in babies and toddlers
- Developing gestures for no and yes: Head shaking and nodding in infancy
First, you’ll find many, many older comments here. We changed to a new commenting system, so if you want to add your own thoughts, scroll to the bottom! :-)
how do you stop it
How do you stop your baby from shaking their head? Not trying to be mean but I don’t my little boy growing up and doing this all his life that is weird. Plus he needs to go to sleep when I want him to not try and stay awake.
Thank Goodness we are not alone!!
I was delighted this evening to come across all the comments about head rolling and shaking. My little boy nearly 7 has rolled his head side to side in a frantic fashion when sleepy, to get himself off to sleep, and throughout the night, and early morning, since he was a tiny newborn. I have never consulted a doctor, as he is happy and healthy in every other way. As a Mum, I guess you do worry about all these funny goings on. Lovely to read all the other comments, very helpful.
Hi, I am 12 years old and I still rock my head side to side ever since I was a baby to get to sleep. I find it helps me to get to sleep and I can’t get to sleep very well without rolling.
It keeps putting my neck out of place and giving me headaches. I also find it fun to roll. I’m glad to know after reading this that I’m not the only one.
I’m normal, Lol
I was checking this out tonight because I’m 28 years old and I’ve rocked and rolled myself to sleep every night since I was a baby.
My 4-month-old son has been doing this for a few weeks now and I just wondered if it was hereditary.
I can stop some nights and go to sleep on my side, but I do enjoy rolling my head from side to side, It feels like it relaxes me into a deep sleep and blocks out any other noise that is going on in the house, especially my partners snoring!
I am 24 years old young woman and I used to shake my head as a child. Not only from right to left before and after sleeping but also by hitting the back of my head on the chair. I did this often when I was mad or while listening to music. When I was around 12, my parents started to get worried that it might cause some damage, so they started helping me stop. Slowly I did. Even though I replaced the head thing by a foot thing, lol. Anyways I have always been the best o my class and now I’m studying engineering, so I can tell you it doesn’t cause brain damage ;)
Getting this checked out
My 4-month-old daughter started shaking her head ..as if saying no.. involuntarily 4 days ago and I blew it off at first, but it has increased over the last few days to the point I took her to our Nurse Practitioner yesterday. She saw her do it and said she wanted to tell me it’s nothing but is sending us to the Pediatric Neurologist Friday for an EEG to be sure. I am scared half out of my mind..just ready to know she is o.k. I will post our results.
My baby is 8 months old now. She is shaking her head. When I traveled international (my baby 6 months of age) one of the passengers asked me, why she is shaking her head? I noticed from that time onwards. I reached my home country and all of my friends and relatives asked the same. I was scaring. She is 8 months old now but she is not crawling or sitting without support. Can someone give me some suggestions?
Adult still shaking head and embarrassed
I’m 24 and have been shaking my head from side to side since I was little. My grandfather from my mother’s part has done the same thing his entire life (75 years).
Reading some of the above comments makes me think this could really be hereditary or very influential on kids (though I can’t say I have spent that much time with my grandfather as a child).
I’ve always thought of it as an unusually bizarre thing to do and refrain from ever talking about it with anyone, not even with my parents or sister, though they know I still do it. I find it really embarrassing since it’s not something I do only to get myself asleep, but at random times during the day, while laying down and listening to music.
I’m also concerned I might never be able to ‘cure’ this behavior, for I have tried restraining from doing it a couple of days in a row and was shocked to wake myself (or be woken up by my sister) while doing it (subconsciously).
My baby boy has plagiocephaly and is currently undergoing helmet therapy. He has had his helmet for about five months now and we are definitely seeing progress in his head shape.
He recently started shaking his head back and forth and having what appears to be a quick tremor. His body stiffens but only for a few seconds. He does not sit up for very long or crawl, he does not hold his own bottle, he doesn’t like to stand with support and he’s almost nine months.
He has an appointment with the craniofacial specialist on Tuesday and I’m hoping these are all normal things that occur with babies with plagiocephaly.
Don’t believe shaking is a peeing signal
I do not buy that whole thing about peeing and shuddering. I have a one-year-old who seems to shudder or get chill-like symptoms a few times a day. I am very concerned about this, but her Mom always laughs when I mention it. I do not agree, that she is peeing when this happens, because her Dad who is 25 years old does it too!!! Any comments?
11month old shaking his head side to side
My son shakes his head from side to side. He has been doing this for a few months now. I do think he does it when fighting his sleep because he only does it when he is tired.
My son also has one side of his head different than the other. On one side there’s a bone that sticks out like a bump. The other side had it, but it has been gone for months. Is this just his head still developing?
My baby shakes head when I speak
My baby’s head shaking is different… He started shaking his head at 1 month and 2 weeks… He shakes his head when we do something he doesn’t like as if he understands what’s going on in his environment. For example, when I hold him to make him sleep and I start talking with our housekeeper, he will look at me and shake his head. When I stop talking, he will stop shaking. Isn’t that very odd?
Baby head shaking because of the congested nose
My baby boy is 6 months old. When he started doing the side to side shaking, it scared me, but after researching, I am not so scared anymore.
Many babies do this to explore what they can do as their milestones. For my baby, the shaking had to do with a congested cold. I pray that he will outgrew this soon.
Still rolling head back and forth – adult now
I’ve been rolling my head back and forth to get to sleep all my life, 44 years now. It’s always just seemed to be a strange personal quirk, and never a sign of anything further at all, but I pretty much cannot fall asleep without doing it except on rare occasions where I’m exhausted or drunk.
There have, however, been many times I’ve spent the night with others and have been too embarrassed to roll… Those are generally miserable experiences for me, although as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more aware of what is happening within my body, and better at compensating. I experience this need for rhythmic movement as a kind of “nervous anxiety” centered in the base of my spine, so thoroughly stretching those muscles with awareness before getting into bed can really help (plus no one really thinks anything about you stretching before bed).
I only just thought to go online and look into it and was surprised at how many articles claim it will not last beyond young childhood. But to be clear, most articles seem to label it a “disorder”, and it sounds like some of the descriptions are more violent than rhythmic, many involve headbanging or shaking rather than rhythmic rolling, so there may well be various different issues and manifestations being grouped together here.
Again, for myself, it’s always been simply a matter of gently rolling back and forth for some shorter or longer period of time until the nerves are settled and I’m ready to fall asleep. I may well have done it more energetically when I was very young, as children often do everything with way more energy than needed ;-)
I hope this helps someone else out there. This forum has been interesting to me!
I thought I was the only one that did it.
I’m a 25-year-old female and have rocked my head side to side for along as I can remember. I thought I was prob a bit strange and the only one who did it.
I used to get told off for doing it, I suppose mainly cos they found it disturbing, and it really tangled up my hair pretty bad. And would take ages to brush out. I threatened if I didn’t stop they’d cut my hair off like boy, they never did though. I was treated as if it was naughty. And even my grandparents looked down on it too.
I don’t have to rock myself to sleep and my partner has no idea of this since a child I learned to try to hide it and think of ways to prevent my hair from getting tangled.
I can go weeks even months but get enjoyment out of it when I do, find it relaxing and can shut off from the world into my own thoughts.
Now a mother myself my eldest child does it. He’s always had to be rocked to sleep, either in Moses basket or if we held him when he was a baby me sat up rocking back and forth trying to soothe him helped him settle, since about 9 months he began headbanging. I don’t stress over it or make him feel ashamed. He starts when he gets tired while I read him a story and sing him songs before his bed. He’s now three though and was hoping he would have grown out of it by now, but I’m not going to tell him to stop. He’s healthy and happy and if 15 of head rolling helps him sleep then nothing I do or say will stop that.
My Baby Does it when trying to sleep :)
I’ve Noticed it when my 4-month-old baby is trying to sleep I got so scared at first and just cuddled him in my arms his been doing it for a month now on and off not that much thou but just recently my partner when we were getting ready to go out he said our son shook his head and hands while he was sleeping, Epilepsy (however you spell it) Runs on his side of the family so today I’m making an appointment for my baby. I hope all is well with him. He never shakes like that after thou so I hope it’s not Epilepsy.
baby shakes head after waking up
My baby is 4 months and shakes his head briefly like he’s trembling after being woken in a sudden manner from either a sound or from taking him from place to place while he’s in deep sleep.he had fallen on the floor when he was 5 weeks and the dr asked only for an x-ray but didn’t ask for brain MRI.. some of the previous comments comforted me but I think its best to check with the pediatrician.I hope that it won’t develop into epilepsy.
my baby shakes head when she intends to wake up
My baby started shaking the head at 0ne month whenever she wants to wake up from sleep, I thought is a problem. I took her to the doctor but he confirms it is normal.
MY BABIES 5 AND A HALF MONTHS AND HAS JUST STARTED WHAT SEEMS TO BE INVOLUNTARY HEAD MOVEMENT FIRST ONE I SAW HE MOVED HIS CHIN TO THE LEFT THEN ROLLED HIS HEAD TO THE RIGHT OTHER TIMES HE HAS MOVED HIS HEAD TO THE SIDE THEN BACK FOR TWO TO THREE TIMES TOOK HIM TO A AND E ALL THEY COULD FIND WAS THAT HIS EAR CHANNELS WERE A BIT RED?? THERE’S ON JERKING OF THE BODY OR EYE ROLLING ANYONE SEE THIS IN THERE BABY?/
I used to shake my head to fall asleep when I was a child. I would put my head between my legs and shake my head from side to side until I was so tired I would go to sleep. I did this until I was about 9 years old. The only reason I stopped doing it was because even at 9 I knew that it was not normal and I told myself I needed to stop doing it so one night I decided I wouldn’t do it anymore and started shaking my foot to go to sleep. I still have to shake my foot every night before bed and I am in my mid-twenties now.
back and forth
My baby, now 8.5 months started dropping her head down and up while sitting at 7 months. She did this often and I was scared that she might have seizures and got EEG done(sleep). Her reports were normal. Doctors asked me to keep a check on her and said this might be BMEI and will go on its own. After a few days she stopped doing it but now she again does it at the time not very often. So there is nothing to worry about and her habit will go on its own. Her growth patterns are all normal, to date. I hope she is just fine!
3 head shakers in one family
My daughter is 22 years old now and studies medicine. She has been shaking her head ever since she was a few months old to the point where no hair would grow on a circle at the back of her head (until she was about 3). She says she needs to do it, it relaxes her and helps her go to sleep. Maybe it has to do with the fact that she is a highly driven, at times rather anxious person? None of my other children did it.
However, my twin granddaughters at 7 months have just started to violently shake their heads, independently from each other, once, twice a day, usually just before they drop off to sleep. I believe it’s odd but have come to the conclusion that it’s probably harmless if possible medical reasons have been checked out first.
My baby is shaking head too and also hits her head with her hand, but mostly on the right side. She even shakes her head in her sleep. she also gets ear infection every month. Is there anything I can do cause I might think that its ear infection then it might be something else.
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