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Why do babies hit themselves? While it looks odd, there are some common, normal reasons for this behavior. However, there are other reasons that should warrant your attention.

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Mom’s Question:
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?

Thanks,
Tina (KY.)


Reasons Why Babies Hit Themselves

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 stereotypies. Some studies indicate that at least 20-25% of all babies and toddlers do this for some periods of time.

Head banging 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, who was interviewed in Today’s Parent here. (Opens in new window)

There are different reasons why babies develop this behavior. These include:

1. A way to calm down oneself

Older babies and toddlers may experience frustration, anger, or anxiety at times. 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 yet their feelings verbally.

This is very true for toddlers, who often want so much and become devastated when they are not able or allowed to achieve what they want.

2. A Reaction to Pain

Sometimes, infants hit one side of the head consistently as they react to pain. This may be due to an ear infection, or discomfort while teething.

In this case, the hitting may be a way to achive distraction and mitigate the pain.

3. A way to stimulate oneself

Sometimes, babies and toddlers are either tired, lonely, or under-stimulated, causing them to hit themselves in order to stimulate their body and increase their activity.

You can read here about a  baby that hit her head when tired.

This is actually common, especially if your child spends some time alone. If you suspect uder-stimulation as a reason for your baby hitting themselves, then try to engage 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 body and might actually find it interesting or entertaining to explore what they can do with their bodies, such as slapping their tummy, for example. For example, many moms report that their baby hit themselves in their head 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 rythmically is thought to be relaxing for them.

This is actually very common, and assessed to be normal, unless the child hit themselves so hard that they get hurt. (See below about sleep disorders).

You can read here about a  baby that hit her head when tired.

Another similar behavior is to shake their head while falling asleep.

6. Getting Attention

Babies may also hit themselves because we as parents reinforce it!

For examle, 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.

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 oversight of their caretakers.

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 a possible sleep or development disorder.

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 really disturb their sleep, the behavior might qualify to be diagnosed as a disorder called a sleep-related rhythmic movement disorder. A detailed overview of sleep-related rhythmic disorder can be found in this article at Sleepeducation.org.

On the other hand, certain developmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder can cause this behavior. If a child who hits themselves also have symptoms such as strong displays of emotion, or delays in speech, the child should be brought to a pediatrician to rule out a behavioral or dcvelopmental delay.

When Does the Hitting Stop?

Self-stimulation behavior such as hitting oneself develop before the first year of age, and may become worse as far as 2 years of age. Most of these stereotypies last until the pre-school 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 8 months and continued until almost 3 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 – a period when many babies are going through rapid mental development and have big problems dealing with their own frustrations. This is part of normal development 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 3 years old, if not earlier.

What To Do When Babies Hit Themselves

First of all, you, of course, 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 a physician.

If the hitting is not 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, in need of a cuddle or attention? If you can find a pattern, then try to adjust the routines around that situation to reduce the risk of your baby becoming so 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, make sure that your child is safe 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.

Something to remember is to not 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 well over 2 years old and has started to understand the spoken language really well. Try to make her focus on something more enjoyable than hitting!

Something to remember is to not 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 fuss about it. Just make sure your baby doesn’t hurt herself.

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 continuous even if it clearly hurts already, can also be signs of concern. Some children will choose self-stimulatory behavior such as head banging over interacting with other people.

If you notice any of these situations, it is best to have your child seen by a child psychiatrist or psychologist.

And you can also watch this video, which shows a very clear example of Autism related behaviors including headbanging.

You can read about the warning signs of autism here.

And you can also watch this video, which shows a very clear example of Autism related behaviors including headbanging.

Conclusion

As you have seen, there are several common and normal reasons  why babies hit themselves.

However, if you suspect that the hitting is related to pain that requires medical attention or developmental issue, contact a doctor as soon as possible.

Early intervention is always the best!

Read Next

And finally, a great reference book for babies’ and young children’s health issues, check out Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, Birth to Age 5 by the American Academy Of Pediatrics.

I hope this helps,
Paula

Research References

Who can relate? Add your comments below.

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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Lisa

    My 12-month-old daughter will slap her head repetitively and when we try to stop her, she just continues to keep doing it. We try to tell her no and do nice and rub her face but it doesn’t stop her.
    My husband and I are worried. Is this a phase she’s just going through or is it something more? She will also pull her hair too.

    Please help us. Thank you!!

    1. Paula @ EasyBabyLife

      Being 12 months old, I would say yes, it is highly likely to be a phase she is going through! It is quite common for babies to do things like this at around their first birthday. They hit themselves, bite themselves, bang their little heads against the floor, or something similar when they are angry and frustrated. It looks really bad and I think you’re doing the right thing to continue to tell her and show her to not hurt herself. (Not that it will change her behavior…)

      It will pass, probably within a few months or so. Just make sure she doesn’t hurt herself badly. And don’t be worried, it’s normal (but strange for us) and will pass!

      Reasons to worry would be either if you think she might be hitting herself to mitigate pain, eg headache, her ears or teeth, OR if she really just hits herself repetitively for no apparent reason and also isn’t developing towards her milestones as you would expect. Both these possible situations would make a visit to the Dr appropriate.

  2. Confused

    My 18mth old niece has started throwing fits and fighting, kicking and screaming when it is time to change her diaper. Wet/poopy doesn’t matter. If you try to clean poop away/out of her vagina, she has even clamped her legs shut on me.

    What do you think is the cause of this new behavior?

    1. Paula @ EasyBabyLife

      Hi,

      So your niece has decided that she doesn’t like diaper change. Who can blame her :-)

      Has she started expressing her will in other situations too – like wanting to feed herself, wanting to help to do “grown-up things” like getting dressed or deciding what to wear, helping with setting the table, or deciding when it is bedtime?

      18 months is a mental development stage, going from baby to toddler and understanding a lot more about the world, including that many others around the house get to do things the toddler can’t. Frustrating for sure!

      Many babies start refusing diapering at this age. My own youngest son simply took his diapers off everywhere. He hated them. And peed on the floor… I bought him a bright red potty at 18 months, and he loved trying it. He weaned himself off the diapers at 2.5 years old – just declared one Monday morning that he wanted only underwear because he had stopped using diapers. And he was right!

      Here is a post I wrote about exactly the situation you are in, and how to deal with it.

      One way to get around this problem is to let the baby stand up during the diapering. It can be a bit tricky to hold the baby and do the diapering at the same time, but you’ll get the hang of it. If they stand in front of a mirror, for example, it can be a great distraction.

      Another possibility is a diaper toy – something she only gets to play with during the diapering.

      Co-operating with an 18-months old takes creativity. They are determined, learn fast, and they are impossible to negotiate with or discipline, but wonderful in their urge to develop and be a “big girl or boy”.

      Try focusing on having fun and avoid as many power struggles as possible. Of course, she needs to have her diaper changed, but maybe a little later, while standing up, playing with her toys, or whatever makes her co-operate. And why not give her a potty to try out when and if she wants?

      And when you do change her diapers, make sure you don’t see anything that could be causing pain or discomfort, such as a bad diaper rash.

      Hope this helps,

      Paula

  3. Nora

    Folks,
    First, if you are scared, you need to take your child to a Doctor and discuss it. Your doctor can assess whether this is just the normal odd behavior of a baby or something greater to be concerned over.

    My one daughter was a headbanger, hitting her head against the floor or her crib until it made her cry sometimes. A visit to the doctor helped me understand that it is odd but normal. She grew to be a very happy and well-adjusted child and woman. So, please, discuss the concerns with your doctor and relax. Some of this is normal and part of them understanding their bodies and feelings, some may be indications of other issues. Only your doctor can really let you know.

  4. Julie I

    I am going nuts over this issue. I have one daughter. She never did any of this hitting/banging head stuff. She is not/was not an ideal child but did not physically harm herself.

    My grand-daughter seems to detest me. She smacks herself senseless and the simple fact that she is hurting herself for no reason really bothers me. I don’t get it. She is 15 months old. I watched her for her early days and into the first year. Now I am garbage.

  5. Louise 22

    My daughter is 20 months now, and she started a week ago hitting herself in the head when she’s upset or crying and she also covers her mouth when she cries.

    I separated from her father, who is 25, about a month ago and we both now live with our parents. His household is a stressful environment to be in, lots of shouting, swearing, and temper tantrums from his younger brother. His whole family is very caring people who have big hearts and love to take care of each other, but with teenagers in the house, there is a lot of tension in the air.
    Now, my house is very quiet, it is just me, my mommy, daughter, and our dogs. Even though I am still suffering from post-partum depression, it is still a much calmer environment to be in.

    When my daughter returns from a day or night at her father’s house, she has panic attacks, hits herself in the head and covers her mouth when she cries. It upsets me very much to see my darling child hurt herself for no reason. My mother and I cannot figure out why she has started to do this. The only thing we can link it to would be how she feels when she is at her father’s house.

    My mother thinks she is so wound up when she is there, that when she comes home she has to let it all out. When she is home she will not leave my arms, I still have to rock her to sleep in my arms and walk around her bedroom for about an hour, every single night. She still wakes up in the middle of the night crying and she has nightmares every second night.

    I am so worried about my girl. I don’t know how to make her stop. When she starts hitting herself I just hold her hands away and say “it’s okay baby, it’s okay” in a very calming voice and press my face or my forehead against hers. She sometimes attempts to do it again, but I usually get her to stop.

    The only option I see is taking her to the doctors to have it documented that she is stressed for future reference if a custody battle comes into play, and see what else our doctor recommends.

    Can anyone explain what is happening to my little girl?

    1. Paula @ EasyBabyLife

      You and your daughter are in a new and stressful situation – no wonder your daughter is acting out. If she used to live with both you and her dad and now all of a sudden is always separated from one of you, it is a big change for her! Also living in new environments is a big change.

      You say that her dad’s family is loving. That is great! If you can, ask him to protect her from the worst arguments over there. In the long run, she will learn that life is different with mom and dad and she will be cool about it.

      The fact that she is acting out when she is with you (and not with her dad?) might be because she is more attached to you. Most babies are. So being away from you is tough and it has only been a month. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that dad’s house is bad for her.

      Try to continue to do what you do – be with her, hold her, love her and also have FUN with her. Laughter is great for healing! You’ll get through and she will too.

      Warm wishes,

  6. Grandma

    My grandson started hitting himself when he was a baby. It always occurred when he became angry. Knowing his father has a violent temper has been what led us to believe that was the reason why.

    It’s scary to watch and horrifying for your friends and family to watch. To top things off, he has always been a big, strong child and we always felt like he was hurting himself.

    His father hasn’t been involved with Odin since he was about 5 months old. Although the parents still talk to each other, oddly enough, that relationship ended with the father being taken to the hospital because of hurting himself more than any of the things he was taking his anger out on at the time. Due to that, though, we’ve always been at a loss of how to get the baby to stop it.

    My daughter started by holding him close during the episodes and continuing to explain after that we love him and he needs to love himself and not hurt the baby. It has gotten easier as he’s reached the age of wanting his caretaker to tell the floor or anything that hurts him not to anymore.

    Odin is three now and still cannot explain what makes him attack himself sometimes but can at least scream through his tears “I’m mad!” when we ask why he’s hitting himself. Most of the time, he controls it. Now it’s easy enough to see it’s not all the time, just when he’s highly frustrated.

  7. Jane

    I know it sounds silly but you could get his hearing checked.
    Our daughter used to have bad balance, not terrible, but more so than other toddlers. She also became self-abusive. She would hit her head and pull her hair. The clinic said to take her to the hospital; they thought she had a brain infection. Lucky us, she was only losing her hearing. It was a progressive loss due to a temperature that she got after one of her sets of infant shots.

    She is now a completely deaf proud 13-year-old. It did make her upbringing a bit more challenging, but not nearly as complicated as a brain infection would have been.

    It doesn’t hurt to rule it out. Good luck!

  8. Jamie17

    I was worried too so I had to look it up then came across this, it was very refreshing to know that it happens, but it is so scary.

    My daughter has moved on to hitting her face then basically gouging her face with her nails. She is nearly two years old and I love her dearly, but I really don’t know what to say when she does it.

    I thought I may as well drop my little something in to show I took an interest and Tina, it is nothing to worry about in the end.
    My mother says ‘she will learn’ before or after scratching her face off mum. :-D

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