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Health > Mental Health > Head Banging


Of all the childhood habits, head banging is probably the one that causes parents the greatest worry. But why do children do it-is it a sign of emotional problems? And can it damage the brain?

Towards the end of their first years of life many children-to the horror and distress of their parents-start to bang their heads rhythmically and monotonously on their cots, roll their heads from side to side against the cot bars, or sit on their hands and knees and rock themselves back and forth as if they are in some sort of trance.

These sort of movements seem to be most common when the child is tired, bored or frustrated and, in the case of head banging, can produce nasty bruises or swellings on the child’s head.


Psychologists have put forward many theories as to why children indulge in a habit that seems so pointless and potentially dangerous. Most agree that head banging, head rolling and rocking are all forms of comfort habits.

It seems that the rhythmical physical action in some way recreates for the child the sensation of security he or she felt being rocked in his mother’s arms or in the cradle.

It is significant that these habits start at an age when the child is beginning to achieve a considerable degree of independence from his mother-he no longer feeds from the breast for example, and is mobile to determine many of his own actions.


It is also thought that rhythmic movements serve in some way to release a child’s inner tensions and help him to work out those things that are worrying him-in the same way that an adult might let off steam by going for a brisk walk or digging the garden.

It has been suggested that head banging starts at an age when children first begin to respond to the rhythm of music and that the two are interrelated, but there is no positive evidence to support this theory.


What worries parents most about head banging is the fear that the child may inflict permanent physical injury on his brain. It is risk that parents need to take seriously.

The most sensible thing to do is to pad the inside of the cot with flat foam rubber cushions tied to the bars.

If possible, the headboard of the cot should be removed-if this is the part the head is thumped against-and replaced with a piece of thick, heavy-duty fabric such as canvas.

Sometimes the child’s movements are strong that they push the whole cot across off the castors on the cot feet and tying pads of foam rubber under the cot legs, or put the cot on a piece of old carpet which has been tacked securely to desired space on the floor.


Head banging is not something that should be restrained. Apart from the practical difficulty of doing this, it is also likely to make the problem worse rather than better.

Like other comfort habits such as the thumb sucking, cuddling a blanket or soft toy, the child will probably grow out of it by the time he is three or four years old.

Parents should make sure, however, that the child is not head banging because he has been too severely punished for some minor offence or is tense because he is unhappy at playgroup or school.

Some doctors used to prescribe sedatives and tranquilizers for children who were habitual head bangers but these are not now recommended. Nowadays it is thought to be fare more important to get to the root of any problem a child may have-if indeed he has one at all.


The time to worry about head banging is when it persists beyond the age of about five or sic-in which case it could indicate some abnormality in the child’s emotional development, or if at any age it produces physcial injury.

In either case you could talk to your doctor about it. He may refer him to a child psychiatrist if he feels this is necessary, or to a hospital for head X-rays if there is suspected injury.

The doctor will see whether the child’s physical development is progressive normally and at an even pace, whether his mental abilities are showing similar advancement, and also whether he is capable of making and sustaining good personal relationships.


As with many babyhood habits, head banging can reappear later on in childhood in times of stress, when things are going badly at school for example.

Parents should take this as a sign that a child is feeling very insecure emotionally, and make a great effort to try to help work out the problem. If it continues then the child should see his or her doctor.

Sometimes reversion to this babyish way of behaving is an indication that an adolescent is on drugs or is severely depressed. If you suspect that this is the case, consult the child’s teacher and seek medical advice as well.

Most important of all, be sympathetic towards the child’s needs and worries, even if you find his behaviour extremely irritating.


As well as being a comfort habit, head banging can also be part of a child’s display of temper. In a really bad temper tantrum a two-year-old may just lie on the floor, kicking and screaming and beating his head against the ground or the wall.

The best thing to do is to ignore it as long as there is no chance of the child seriously injuring himself. If he looks like injuring himself, put him on his bed or in some other safe place on his own until the tantrum has worked itself out.

If these sorts of temper tantrums with head banging are happening frequently, make sure you are not being too hard on the child, expecting him to achieve too much too early, or laying down too many rules and regulations.


Children who bang their heads are not indulging in some juvenile kind of masochism-rather, they are trying to come to terms with the complexities of life, with the fact that they are people in their own right, with the achievement of independence and with bodies that produce a certain range of sensations.

But, because the head houses the brain, it is essential that it is protected as far as possible, and that the child sees a doctor if there is any sign that his physical or emotional behaviour is becoming increasingly abnormal.

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