Why do babies hit themselves? While it looks odd, there are some common, normal reasons for this behavior. However, some reasons should warrant your attention.
Why do babies hit themselves? My 6-month-old baby girl hits herself… She started hitting her chest, and now she hits her mouth and head. I need to know why they do this. Should I worry that something is wrong?
In this article…
Babies That Hit Themselves: Occurrence and Age Groups
It does look pretty strange and sometimes even scary when babies start hitting themselves. But this behavior is very common, just like biting or banging their heads against the floor. These are called stereotypic movements or stereotypes. Some studies indicate that at least 20-25% of all babies and toddlers do this for some periods of time.
Headbanging is more common in males.
Around the age of 6 months is also mentioned as a common starting point in particular for this behavior, according to Kiran Pure, a child psychologist interviewed in Today’s Parent here. (Opens in new window)
Reasons Why Babies Hit Themselves
There are different reasons why babies develop this behavior. These include:
1. A way to calm oneself down
Older babies and toddlers may sometimes hit themselves when they experience overwhelmingly big feelings of frustration, anger, or anxiety, for example, in temper tantrums. These babies are simply trying to find ways to cope with how they are feeling at the moment.
At this age, they can’t really express their feelings verbally, either, which makes the situation even more difficult for them.
When this happens, it is a good idea as a parent to stay calm and avoid losing our own temper. Our job is to help the child calm down, not to regress to throwing our own tantrums. This can be easier said than done, but reminding ourselves that our kids will do what we do can help us stay calm and deal with a tantrum in a calm and loving way.
2. A Reaction to Pain
Sometimes, infants consistently hit one side of the head in a reaction to physical pain. This may be due to an ear infection or discomfort while teething.
In this case, hitting may be a way to achieve distraction and mitigate the pain while contacting the child’s pediatrician if needed.
3. A way to stimulate oneself
Sometimes, babies and toddlers are either tired, lonely, or under-stimulated, causing them to hit themselves as a sensory input to stimulate their bodies and increase their activity.
This is common behavior, especially if your child spends time alone. If you suspect under-stimulation as a reason for your baby hitting themselves, try engaging in more activities with them and see where it goes!
You’ll find some suggested games to play with 6-month-old babies here.
4. Control and curiosity
Young babies can hit themselves simply because they are gaining control of their bodies and might find it interesting or entertaining to explore what they can do with their bodies, such as slapping their tummy. For example, many moms report that their babies hit themselves in their heads lightly while nursing.
5. Self-Comfort and Sleep
Sometimes, these young children may feel that head banging helps them recall the feeling of being rocked to sleep at night, which they derive pleasure from. Hitting themselves rhythmically is thought to be relaxing and self-soothing for them.
This is very common and considered normal unless the child hits themselves so hard that they get hurt or it affects the child’s sleep negatively. (See below about sleep disorders).
You can read here about a baby that hit her head when tired.
Another similar behavior is shaking their head while falling asleep.
While soft head-hitting and head-banging as part of falling asleep is not considered a self-harming behavior, you can still try to reduce the behavior by substituting if for some other soothing bedtime routine, such as a lullaby while hugging a lovey (stuffed animal).
6. Getting Attention
Babies may also hit themselves because we, as parents, reinforce the behavior!
For example, in some cases, they lack enough attention from their parents or caregivers and slowly realize that by head banging more often, they get the attention they want.
The solution, in this case, is not to make a big deal of the banging but rather use distraction and remember to give your child undivided attention and positive reinforcement when they show behaviors that you do want to reinforce.
7. Working out their imagination
Infants and young children may resort to hitting themselves as a substitute for certain activities they would like to do at the time. While their imagination is infinite, because of their limitations as kids, they are often limited by their surroundings and the oversight of their caretakers. In this case, the hitting is actually a part of your child’s free playing.
8. Disorders with sleep or development
Most of the time, children hitting themselves grow up with normal behavior. However, there is always a small chance that this is a sign of possible sleep or developmental disorders.
If your child always hits themselves just before falling asleep, and there are no other unusual behaviors, it may be a way for them to lull themselves to sleep. This is normal, but if the hitting is violent and frequent enough to injure the child or disturb their sleep, the behavior might qualify to be diagnosed as a sleep-related rhythmic movement disorder. A detailed overview of sleep-related rhythmic disorders can be found in this article at Sleepeducation.org.
In addition, certain developmental conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, can cause this behavior. If a child who hits themselves also has symptoms such as strong displays of emotion, other repetitive behaviors, or developmental delays, the child should be brought to a pediatrician for assessment.
When Does the Hitting Stop?
Self-stimulation behavior, such as hitting oneself, develops before the first year and may worsen until 2 years of age. Most of these stereotypes last until the preschool period.
If the behavior isn’t due to pain or a medical condition, it can last for some time. My youngest started hitting himself and biting his hand when angry at around eight months of age and continued until he was almost three years old.
He is a textbook example of normal babies hitting themselves – most babies start doing this at some point between 6 and 12 months old.
The behavior tends to peak at around 24-30 months when many babies are going through rapid mental development and have big problems dealing with their own frustrations. This is part of normal development during early childhood and is expected. (It isn’t called the “terrible twos” for nothing.)
While some babies may hit themselves for a couple of months only, others go on for years. Most babies grow out of it at around three years old, if not earlier.
What To Do When Babies Hit Themselves
First of all, you need to track down why your baby is hitting herself. Make sure to rule out any illness, such as an ear infection, a sore throat, or teething. If it looks like your child has a medical condition, seek consultation with your baby’s healthcare provider.
If your child engages in various repetitive or rhythmic movements, including hitting, body-rocking, or similar behaviors without any identifiable trigger, you should contact your child’s doctor as soon as possible since such behavior can be a sign of a developmental problem.
If the hitting is not development or pain-related, see if you can find a pattern of when this is more likely to occur.
Does your baby tend to hit herself when she is tired, hungry, under-stimulated, or needs a cuddle or attention? If you can find a pattern, try to adjust the routines around that situation to reduce the risk of your baby becoming upset.
Just to reiterate, head banging is, more often than not, an expected part of a child’s development. Most babies who exhibit this behavior grow up as normal children.
Above all else, ensure your child is in a safe environment when they engage in head-banging behavior. If they still use the crib; clasps and rails should be secured properly. Avoid using crib bumpers, as these can lead to possible strangulation or suffocation. Make sure that your child can’t accidentally get injured on any sharp edges or hard surfaces.
Something to remember is not to reinforce the behavior.
During the day, distracting them by offering different forms of play is the best way to stop unwanted behavior until your baby is over 2 years old and has started to understand the spoken language well. Try to make her focus on something more enjoyable than hitting!
Something to remember is not to reinforce the behavior. If head banging happens at night, don’t check in on them every few minutes. They may associate this with your attention, causing them to do it even more often. So don’t make a big deal about it. Just make sure your baby doesn’t hurt herself.
Keep your own emotions under control. If your child’s head-banging is connected to anger, it is easy to become angry as a parent, too. However, a big reaction from the adult will not improve the situation and will not help the child learn how to deal with anger in more appropriate ways. Remind yourself that your child is not “bad” or “spoilt”. They simply haven’t learned yet how to deal with strong emotions in more effective ways. The best thing you can do as a parent is to be a role model. Find effective ways to deal with toddler tantrums here.
When to Worry
As already mentioned, headbanging and other ways of hitting themselves can, in rare cases, be a sign of a developmental issue. In these situations, there will be other signs as well, such as falling behind several other developmental milestones or losing certain abilities he used to have.
Extremely frequent head-banging, either throughout the whole day or continuously, even if it clearly hurts already, can also be a sign of concern. Some children will choose self-stimulatory behavior, such as head banging, over interacting with others.
If you notice any of these situations, having your child seen by a child psychiatrist or psychologist is best.
Watch this video for clear examples of autism-related behaviors, including headbanging.
As you have seen, babies hit themselves for several reasons. The bottom line is that even if it looks odd and can be frustrating to deal with for parents, it is most often a common and normal behavior related to self-soothing, self-stimulation, or general development during the baby and toddler years.
If you suspect that the hitting is related to pain that requires medical attention or developmental issues, contact a doctor as soon as possible.
Early intervention is always the best!
Listen to this medical doctor for some more ideas on what to do about the head-banging and when to worry.
- Babies Hitting Themselves Out Of Anger And Frustration
- Baby Hitting Head When Tired
- If Baby is Shaking Head Side to Side, Check These 4 Reasons
- Important Warning Signs of Autism in Babies and Toddlers
I hope this helps,
Who can relate? Add your comments below.
- Amy R.M. Gwyther, Arthur S. Walters, Catherine M. Hill, Rhythmic movement disorder in childhood: An integrative review, Sleep Medicine Reviews, Volume 35, 2017, Pages 62-75, ISSN 1087-0792, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2016.08.003.
- Sallustro F, Atwell CW. Body rocking, head banging, and head rolling in normal children. J Pediatr. 1978 Oct;93(4):704-8. doi: 10.1016/s0022-3476(78)80922-6. PMID: 309000.
- Self-Injury in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disability
- Adam, H.M. (Ed) & Foy, J.M. (Ed) (2015). Signs & Symptoms in Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics
- Voigt, R.G. et al (2011). Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics.
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The information in this article is provided by Medical Doctor Janina Kong. The purpose is to provide examples and knowledge to help parents dig deeper into their baby’s situation, not to offer a complete picture or a possible diagnosis.
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.