Head banging can be a surprisingly common behavior in many children. Up to 20% of babies and toddlers bang their heads purposefully, with boys being up to three times more likely to engage in this behavior than girls. Head banging often starts at around 6 months, peaking anywhere between 18-24 months of age. This habit can stretch out for months (even years), but most children outgrow this behavior by the age of three to four. This behavior may extend later for children diagnosed with autism, developmental delays, or who have suffered from neglect.
1. Sensory Processing: Head banging, like body rocking, is a rhythmic physical movement. When a child is in utero, they feel the sensation of being rocked as their mother moves about, and is later rocked in their caregiver’s arms as an infant. As children mature, this rocking sensation is further developed through play that activates both the vestibular system in the brain (the part of the sensory system that is responsible for motion sense and balance) and the proprioceptive system (the sensory system that provides the body with information regarding where it is in space) that includes activities like: sliding, swinging, riding bikes, etc. When a child’s nervous system is under-stimulated (i.e. he or she receives limited to no sensory input from any of the sensory systems for a variety of natural or environmental causes), he/she may head bang to increase stimulation. To the opposite effect, a child who’s nervous system is hyper-sensitive and thus over-stimulated may head-bang as a comforting behavior, and thus as a way to decrease the stimulation around them while moderating their over-loaded sensory system.
2. Pain: It is important to rule out any organic physical and medical reasons for the child who is head banging (i.e. ear infection or tooth ache). A child may head bang as a way to alleviate pain; that is, engaging in this behavior may be an effort in distracting him/her from the pain being experienced.
3. A way to seek your attention: Some children who engage in continuous head banging will make the connection that this will elicit a strong reaction and immediate attention, and thus begin a cycle of utilizing this behavior to get your attention. In this case, consultation with a professional skilled in the area of behavioral intervention may offer extended support in decreasing this behavior.
4. Frustration: When a child has difficulty expressing themselves he/she may engage in this behavior out of high emotionality and frustration, thus relieving some of the internal turmoil through this behavior.
It is important to note that there are many underlying components of head-banging behaviors, and many factors often contribute to the manifestation of this habit. It is important to be in regular contact with your pediatrician, therapists, and other professionals to help you further explore any specific underlying triggers to this behavior that are unique to your own child.
What Are Some Things That You Can Do About It?
1. Consider padding areas that you find your child frequently bangs their head against.
2. Use a helmet, with an MD prescription.
3. Utilize vibration. This will activate the vestibular system, and your child will thus receive input in a safer and more functional way. Examples include, but are not limited to: vibrating stuffed animals, vibrating tooth brushes, vibrating pillows, vibrating small massagers, etc.
4. Have your child sit in a rocking chair at home and at school.
5. Utilize a yoga ball chair at home and at school to help them receive vestibular input (make sure it is stable with a proper back).
6. Have your child do movement exercises that go against resistance. Examples include, but are not limited to: resistive exercises to activate the proprioceptive system (chin ups on a chin-up bar, lift light weights).
7. Have your child do movement breaks that incorporate rotation and head below the level of the heart (to integrate vestibular input). An example of this would be the yoga pose of “Sunrise, Sunset.” Have your child stand with feet planted and back straight. Your child should reach up with straight arms while taking a deep breath in. This should be followed by your child reaching down towards the floor and touching their feet, while breathing out (its ok if your child bends their knees here).
8. Have your child help with chores around the house that require him or her to lift heavy objects (i.e. laundry basket or bucket of water or watering can), push and pull chairs before and after meals, pick up items from the floor to clean up, etc.
9. Use of a weighted hat/weighted halo to provide proprioceptive input to the head. You can even just utilize a regular baseball cap, as this will still provide input to the head.
10. Have your child utilize a tactile brush around the hair area at transitions (you can buy a bathing brush with bristles at your local drug store). While many children with ASD do not like having their hair combed or brushed, having the child utilize a scrubby brush or tactile brush themselves will allow them control over a feeling that may feel noxious, while providing necessary input at the same time.
By providing children who engage in consistent head banging behavior with doses of routine sensory input throughout the day, we can help moderate feelings of distress by establishing a calmer sensory system, a happier child, and (I’m sure), a thrilled family.