Thinking Moms’ Guide to Red Flags: Head Banging

red flag - head bangingIs it normal for an infant, toddler or preschooler to bang his or her head on a hard surface?

It seems like a straightforward question — even as my mother’s instinct is screaming, “No, it’s not normal; something is wrong.”

However, it turns out the answer to this question depends on who you ask!

The popular baby books will tell you it is normal.

Like hair twirling, rocking, and other self-comforting activities, head banging is a way for your toddler to release pent-up energy and tension at the end of the day.

It can be pretty terrifying to watch, but this is not unusual for toddlers (and his skull is actually tougher than you think).

Many doctors will tell you it is normal (mine did!)

If your child is normal and healthy and only shows these behaviors during the night or at naptime, you should not be concerned — these are common ways for children to fall asleep. They are seen in many healthy infants and children beginning at an average of 6-9 months of age. These behaviors typically subside by age 2 or 3, and by age 5 are only still seen in 5 percent of normal, healthy children.

And this:

Although head banging appears alarming, the child seldom inflicts significant damage to the head. The physical examination in children who are head bangers is usually normal. Laboratory investigations are generally not indicated. The appropriate treatment of head banging is to offer the parents a supportive and reassuring explanation that brain damage is unlikely and that the child will outgrow the problem.

Many friends will tell you not to worry; it is normal (because their kids did it and are fine):

He would literally make his forehead bleed from hitting it hard enough, even on carpet. As painful as this was to watch, I learned that it was totally normal. And he learned too that some surfaces hurt more than others, though sometimes in a total meltdown, he’d forget that cement was especially painful and he’d end up with small marks on his forehead. Poor guy.

BUT . . . I have to interject!

Head banging is not normal, and for our family it was a huge red flag that everyone kept telling us to ignore.

Kristi's daughter

Our family’s experience with head banging began when our daughter was around 14 months old. Unfortunately, this was not our first red flag. In the previous year she had colic, diarrheaallergic shinersw-sitting, and failure to thrive, to name a few.  It was a just few weeks after her MMR vaccine, and we were instructed by a gastrointestinal doc that we needed to get her off my breast milk (he was confident that was the cause of all her issues), and put her on cow’s milk. Within a day of introducing two ounces of cow’s milk into her diet, she began the head-banging behavior. It was awful, absolutely horrendous to witness my child try to harm herself. I cried tears of agony and fear as I held her day after day in a bear hug as she thrashed, trying to keep her safe, attempting, in vain, to soothe and calm her. I made repeated calls to the doctor and was told: “It can’t be the milk,” “Head banging is normal,”and “She is nearing two, and that is what the ‘terrible twos’ looks like.”  At the time, I hadn’t a clue what was going on in her little body, other than the growing sense that something was very wrong.  We removed the milk from her diet, and slowly over the course of two weeks the head banging faded away. Fast forward to now, and I know so much more about what was more than likely was happening to our sweet baby girl. Today I share it with you in hopes that no other mom has to walk in my shoes.

Head banging is classified in the medical literature as a self-injurious behavior (SIB) and can also be classified as rhythmic movement disorder (RMD). One medical journal noted that “The impact force of SIBs as a percentage of body weights are near the low end of forces generated in boxing blows and karate hits.” Here are some things that head banging can indicate and why you should be concerned if your child is exhibiting this behavior.

Head banging can be associated with:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorders:  “A key area of concern in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are self-injurious behaviors (SIBs). These are behaviors that an individual engages in that may cause physical harm, such as head banging, or self-biting. SIBs are more common in children with ASD than those who are typically developing or have other neurodevelopmental disabilities.”
  • Autism: “Motor stereotypies, including rocking, head banging, and toe walking, were observed. Difficulties in the domain of social interaction began to emerge during the second 6 months, including poor eye contact, failure to engage in imitative games, and lack of imitative vocal responses. By a little over 1 year of age, this infant met diagnostic criteria for autism based on the Autism Diagnostic Interview.”
  • Seizures: “In this study specific limb and eye movements plus other ictal phenomena were catalogued from the neurologic literature on frontal lobe seizures. Ten patients were described who presented the clinical picture of frontal lobe seizures. Extreme self-injury in some brain-damaged persons was therefore regarded as involuntary, and need for recognition of this behavior as frontal lobe dysfunction, not a “behavior problem” under voluntary control, was noted.”
  • Developmental Disorders, Tourette’s, and OCD: “We present a 7-year-old boy with a developmental disorder presenting with severe head banging. Clinical evolution was consistent with diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, stuttering, and Tourette’s syndrome.”
  • Intellectual Disability: “Self-injurious behavior is a serious problem that is not uncommon among individuals with mental retardation. Medical and developmental characteristics of 97 children, adolescents, and young adults (age range 11 months to 21 years, 11 months) assessed and treated for self-injurious behavior in a specialized, interdisciplinary inpatient unit between 1980 and 1988 were reviewed. Severe or profound mental retardation was present in 82.5% of our patients. Associated disabilities represented at greater than expected frequencies included pervasive developmental disorders, visual impairment, and a history of infantile spasms. Most patients (81.4%) engaged in more than one type of self-injurious behavior. The most common topographies were head banging, biting, head hitting, body hitting, and scratching.”
  • Nutritional Deficiency (Scurvy): “We report an unusual clinical presentation of scurvy in a one and half year old child. The child presented with abrupt onset of peri-orbital ecchymoses and scalp hemorrhage following head injury. The child also had a history of temper tantrums and head banging. Our case did not have any of the typical clinical features of scurvy.”
  • Ear Infections (Otitis Media): “The author presents two case reports of peripubertal boys with severe and chronic head-banging parasomnias, or rhythmic movement disorders (RMDs), which started de novo whilst they were suffering from recurrent and severe otitis media in toddlerhood.”

My question to you, Thinking Mom, is how do you know your child is not suffering from one of the underlying conditions above if you are told it is normal and you ignore it without further investigation, testing or attempt to intervene?  Can you tell if your child has an uderlying neurologic, psychiatric, or cellular condition just by looking at him or her? No! 

Even this article that maintains that head banging is a normal activity for some children says that underlying pathology should be ruled out before “reassuring” the parents:

Headbanging is a rhythmic motor activity that may occur in normal infants and young children, as well as in children with underlying psychiatric or neurologic disease. Once underlying pathology has been excluded (emphasis mine), parents should be reassured about the benign nature of the activity.

What can you do about it?

Tyler's son

Two-year-old with broken nose and dent in his forehead from head banging

Express your concern to a doctor.  If you are told it is normal, bring information substantiating your concerns (linked above).  If your doctor will not look into it further, find a doctor who will and ask that things like ear infection, seizures, deficiencies and developmental delays be investigated and ruled out as the cause, especially if the behavior continues or worsens.

If there have been vaccinations given in the preceding hours, days, or weeks (up to three to six months) prior to the onset of any self-injurious behavior, encephalopathy should be ruled out, especially if there was a sudden onset of the behavior.

Keep a journal, and note when the symptoms started. Note when the child was last vaccinated, had any new antibiotics or medication, and what new foods were introduced.  Do a trial elimination of a specific food that you feel may be suspect (e.g., milk or wheat) to see if the behavior lessens or worsens.

If the behavior worsens or intensifies and you fear for your child’s safety and health, do not hesitate to take your child to an emergency room and request an MRI. If your child is experiencing any type of encephalopathy, this may be the only way to verify and record that information while it is occurring.

Keep in mind every behavior is a form of communication for pre-verbal or marginally verbal children, so head banging cannot be just dismissed as “attention seeking.” If you had no language and your head hurt intensely, what might you do to communicate this to those around you in order to get help?

Consider what veterinarians are telling pet owners to do when their dogs and cats do this behavior they call “head pressing,” and what it means:

The term “head pressing” is actually pretty descriptive—the affected pet stands close to a wall or other hard surface (furniture, the corner, etc) and literally presses the top of her head against it. It almost always signifies significant illness.

Many diseases can have head pressing as a clinical sign, but most often we associate it with hepatic encephalopathy, a condition that occurs in pets with liver disease. The liver is meant to remove toxins from the blood stream. When it doesn’t function properly, ammonia and other toxins build up and create this neurologic syndrome of head pressing.

What do you think it means when your toddler does it? I recommend seeking medical attention ASAP.

~ Beaker

For more by Beaker, click here.



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39 Responses to Thinking Moms’ Guide to Red Flags: Head Banging

  1. Nicole says:

    My 2 yr old does this. He will sit on the couch or futon and rock back and forth so hard the couch actually lifts off the floor. He appears to be TRYING to hit the back of his head. I tried to pyt my legs across his lap so he doesnt fling himself across the room in vigorous movements obly to have ny knees headbutted in the process. Like his head is a pinball between my knees and the couch… And hes the driving force! He does this every single day for no reason at all… Hes about a yr overdue for vax shots and has not been diagnosed with anything. His diet is average (eats off my plate all the time). He has an older sibling with HFA and speech delayed older twin siblings (4 kids total: oldest is HFA 8 yrs old, twins are speech delay 3.5 yr olds, youngest is 2 yrs old).
    He only does this cushoined areas (thank god!) But like i said, its every single day and he does it for hours on end. Theres are no triggers. He even falls asleep in less than 60 seconds (while sitting up and with a toy block still dangling from his mouth… Like narcolepsy? Idk… None of the older 3 kids had sudden sleep attacks frequently or at all like the 2 yr old head banger)….

    • ProfessorTMR says:

      It sounds like there may be a neurological issue at work here. It is not normal for a child to bang their head for hours. Children may fall asleep suddenly if they are very tired, but it shouldn’t be happening frequently. There are lots of possible triggers. Has he ever had antibiotics? Allergies? It is also possible for autoimmune phenomena (some of which can cause brain inflammation) to develop up to several years after vaccination. I would seek the help of a good doctor, preferably one that practices functional medicine. Is there anyone you know in your area who has a medically complex child who can recommend someone?

  2. Honada says:

    My daughter is 10 months
    She hangs her head a lot before sleeping is it a way to comfort herself?
    Other symptoms waking up a lot at night, however I do see some teeth coming but on the other hand she doesn’t eat well at all, she barely eats any solids, he weight is less than 16 pounds about 15.13 I believe.
    The doctor diagnosed her with strider at birth & now she is diagnosed with acid reflux at age 5 months.
    She is now on nexium morning and night dose. Even she takes her nexium but solids improvement is not really well however she drinks her milk well but some days her milk consumption is low as well.
    She is on alimentum coz I have a feeling she has also milk allergy, she screams at night whenever I give her any cow milk.
    I’m not sure if the head banging is related to teething or acid reflux?
    Refusal of solids is related to reflux? Sometimes she coughs after solids but she doesn’t cough after formula. Do I need to do any further testing?

    The doctor was trying to check her ear for infection but she couldn’t she told me there is wax inside and it is so hard to get it coz she screams a lot and it is impossible to check there, she said she is fine as long as no fever or liquid coming out.
    She also told me never to worry about wax it will come out alone, is it true or I have to give her smth different?

  3. HP says:

    You didn’t exactly say in the article what the head banging with your daughter was a red flag for? What was the cause?

  4. Maria says:

    I found this article when looking for info on head banging ‘when angry’. My little grandson will hit his head with anything if you take a toy away, or if you stop him from doing what he insists on doing. In other words he has a bad temper, but I wonder, why bang his head? He also screams quite loud when he is excited. He has not been vaccinated, still breastfeeds but drinks a bit of goat milk before bedtime, or sooner. He is 14 months old. I would greatly appreciate any info on this, especially of a homeopathic remedy that might help. thank you

    • ProfessorTMR says:

      He might have some brain inflammation from another source. Unfortunately, they abound these days. A homeopathic remedy might indeed be helpful, but as homeopathy is extremely individualized medicine, you should consult a professional homeopath. There are many good ones who are available by Skype. Some names to consider: Donna Powers, Alan Freestone, Jerry Kantor, Angelica Lemke, Mary Hernandez, Robert Ullmann.

      • Maria says:

        Thank you for the reply ProfessorTmr, I have already given him a remedy, I am now observing the progression of symptoms.
        I might update in time, I do rely on classical homeopathy for the best outcome. At least it is my preferred method.

      • Lindsay says:

        Maria, my son now 4 did this as well since 6 months. He would hit his head with his fist to calm himself, even when not angry and just to fall asleep. I didn’t know then, but now see he has sensory processing disorder with visual and touch. My oldest has it with smells, sounds, and movement. He still will not ride a bicycle or ride on toy(never would).
        I’d take not to when these behaviors arise and see if it’s done to calm or remove over stimulation. And removing sugars from their diets does help a ton. We don’t drink cows milk at home. I’m currently low carb with no sugar and function so much better. Good luck!
        Our SPD are gifts! I found out I have it and so many things from my childhood and daily habits suddenly made sense!

  5. Reece says:

    I used to headbang as a kid. Was none of those things you mentioned and had nothing to do with vaccines.

    • ProfessorTMR says:

      No one has implied that all head-banging in small children is due to vaccines, but I’m curious as to how you know yours had nothing to do with vaccines. What WAS your head-banging about?

  6. Tim says:

    I banged my head up until junior high. Not temper related, nor do I have autism. Some how it relaxed me. Did it lying in the bed, or sitting in the car. My twin brother did it as well. I hope this provides insight.

  7. T2L says:

    I did this, and also pulled my hair out, and other unusual behaviour. I am just coming to grips with having been sexually abused as a young child. There was more going on than just that, although that type of abuse in itself is enough for a wee child to have to deal with.

    I would also recommend keeping an eye out for “other” factors besides food and vaccines.

  8. BARRON says:

    I was the Classic Headbanger for quite a few years..I was mostly a Garage Door Head Banger as I got the most vibration and feedback from itGave the best sounds…I probably did it until 7 years old.. I did have a Traumatic event in life with loss of an infant brother @ 4years and a half.. Don’t know how related to that I was. .Otherwise I was a very healthy child..although extremely shy for many years..

  9. kayte says:

    No cows milk…Unless you’re raising a calf, and not a human! Even then nature stops drinking milk when they’re not babies anymore. I use coconut milk. Almond milk. Calcium is found in so many other products aside from dairy. Like BokChoy, kale, white beans, figs, black strap molasses, black eyes peas etc. Cereal isn’t even healthy. Read ingredients and research them! Milk cheese etc aren’t healthy. Advertising just makes you buy into it.

    • ProfessorTMR says:

      Cow’s milk can be a wonderful food for a child if it is not pasteurized, killing all the beneficial bacteria and destroying the enzymes that help us to digest it.

  10. Hart James says:

    The preschool teacher of my son alerted me that my son had been away from the other children, standing at the wall, hitting his head against the wall repeatedly and forcefully.
    She was very concerned. I ignored her concern. My son was perfect.
    My son is grown now. I have cut all ties with him. This is painful to me, but he is a psychopath.

    • Felipe Salgueiro says:

      “I ignored her concern” – maybe you also ignored your own responsability in caring and nurturing your own child.

  11. Gw mom says:

    ‘Over-Thiniking mom’

    • ProfessorTMR says:

      Sure, that’s how it appears to moms who would rather not Think because it’s too much work, or those people other than moms who have great rea$on$ for discouraging Thinking in moms. You have your perspective, and we have ours. 🙂 🙂 🙂

  12. John Clark says:

    Has anyone experience sib after giving a child Keppra.

  13. John Clark says:

    Thanks looking for a solution.

  14. Num Guy says:

    Sadly, vaccine makers have no incentive to change their ways. They make huge profits but are totally protected from lawsuits because Congress granted

    them immunity in 1986. We the taxpayers are paying for the damages they are causing. Sound familiar? Privatizing profits while socializing risk!!

    If you want to change this, please sign this petition on

    Kindly pass this on to everyone you know. Together, hopefully, we can make a difference!

  15. Erin says:

    What about as a sensory seeking behavior? My child does headbanging occassionally but has mild SIB’s when excited or upset, good or bad, and he will use something he is stimming with and hit himself with it etc. Not hard just a tap that is audible, it doesn’t seem to hurt him but it is a stim for sure as well. Also, our child started headbanging when we tried to introduce MB12 shots, those were a disaster for us. He is a child with nonverbal Autism.

    • angela says:

      I don’t know if you got any help by now, but i worked with children with autism for over 10 years ages 4 to 8 and the OT suggested introducing a trampoline because it often mimics the feeling they get from head banging. Also a couple of nice squeezes or a weighted blanket can help too.i hope all goes well.

  16. Hans Scholl says:

    Everyone should read the columns and the comments on Dr. Bob’s Facebook page. It looks like the link to the page with the transcript of the testimony at the Senate hearing yesterday was deliberately tampered with (to keep the public from finding out how all that moving testimony on the vaccine injuries of the witnesses’ children was thrown overboard by the bought legislators still hanging on to memories of a childhood playmate who got polio, rather than getting with the picture NOW!)

    This is what’s going down to prepare for the hearing before the Education committee, from a comment on the page:
    “V. L. T. Action plan, pls read: For parents in this group: I just had a meeting with a high up Democrat who gave me some strategy points for stopping this Bill in Education.
    Schools get paid for attendance. They will lose lots of funding. This needs to happen starting today as if this builds steam BEFORE the vote next week that is sending a very big message to the schools. This could be a major storm for them and bring the entire system into upset. That is what we need. If it’s coming from the schools to the Committee it’s another avenue to stop it. As we saw yesterday it became about people vs. institutions. Very few Pro SB277 but the ones there were from organizations, boards, etc. So getting the schools very worried is a strategy that creates much disruption in the system.
    Schools | Districts — Steps to Take BEFORE the vote on Wednesday April 15, 2015
    1. Write your school, school district, and Board of Education
    2. Call all the same people
    3. Subject line: Notification — Removing (name) from School if SB277 passes
    4. One page letter from parent – very thoughtful – not emotional or frantic – to explain that in opposition to SB277 they will be taking their child|children out of school. This letter serves to alert you so that you are prepared that my child will not be attending ….. school if this passes. Explain that this is not a positive bill for your child|children – tell them why – and that you will be pulling them from school. No threats, no homeschool issues, just tell them you are pulling your child. Short and sweet with key points will get the job done.
    5. Parents who write letters — please call and send to 5 other parents in your child’s school who would also send a letter to the School.”

    Posted by: cia parker | April 09, 2015 at 08:59 PM

  17. Excellent information! Keep it coming!

  18. Kari says:

    Question: I have a 2 year old (completely vax-free, still breastfeeding for a significant portion of her nutrients) who will throw huge rage fits when she doesn’t get what she wants and will bang her head on the floor during these. This is the only time she does it. She is very bright, healthy, and does not show any signs of any developmental or neurological issues. Is this the same thing that you’re talking about here? or are you talking about head banging for seemingly no reason?

    • Jenn says:

      My 2 years old son does the same thing. I’ve seen two pediatricians who say all is fine. He has bruises on his face because of his head banging. It could be anything from me telling him one moment or telling him no so like you said, if he doesn’t get what he wants right that moment, head banging ensues. One doctor said to keep him on carpet but he goes to a wall, touches it to I guess make sure it’s hard, and then bashes his head against it. Has your daughter stopped? Did you find any solution?

    • Amy says:

      I have the same question! Healthy, vax free, breastfed 14 mo old boy. Head banging only in response to frustration. Only does it a couple times and then seems fine. Snuggle bug, loves people and interaction and no major changes to his diet. It has gradually increased in frequency, but it seems like that is just due to the attention he gets for it. Just trying to decide if I should ignore it or if there is something I can do to help him vent in a healthier way!

      • ProfessorTMR says:

        It’s never a good sign when a child hurts himself in response to any stimulus. If it’s brief and only once in a while it may not be indicative of a major problem, but it is not normal. Teaching him to vent in a healthier way is a good idea. Pillows cannot be harmed and will cause less harm with head banging as well. If you can direct him to use pillows to vent, it would definitely be an improvement.

  19. N says:

    Our younger NT son used to head bang for years and we could not find answers. We followed the CD (chlorine dioxide) protocol for him too and it resolved the problem.
    We have used CD to recover other family members from ASD and Lyme.

  20. April Boden says:

    Geez.. A doctor who tells a mother to stop breastfeeding in lieu of cow’s milk for a sick child should be liable for malpractice. What was he basing that medical advice on?

    Migraines and head banging are related to the DPT shot:

    A few cases of DPT-induced serious neurologic adverse effects were reported from India.[1,2] Pertussis component of the DPT vaccine is mainly responsible for neurologic reactions. It causes neurologic damage: by affecting cellular signaling, catecholaminergic and GABAergic systems and defect in blood–brain barrier due to endotoxin-mediated endothelial damage.

  21. frankie says:

    I agree with Patty 100%!

  22. Donna Powers says:

    Brilliant…and homeopathy really can help early on when the head banging first begins. Thank you for this amazing series!

  23. Patty Lemer says:

    FANTASTIC post! This should be on the front page of the New York Times!

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