Question of the week: My child bangs her head, is this a red flag for autism?

Head-banging is described as “the rhythmic movement of the head against a solid object marked by compulsive repetitiveness”(1). This occurs in healthy babies at 6 to 9 months of age and the behavior will typically stop by 3 to 5 years of age. Although most children use head-banging to release tension and prepare for sleep, some very young children who don’t have enough expressive language will use it as a form of communicating their displeasure and frustration about something that has just happened. In this case, if the head-banging is not replaced with a more appropriate model of communication, it could easily become a habit.

In cases where your little one is using head-banging to get your attention, consider the following suggestions:

  • Walk to her/him calmly and check and check for injuries. 
  • If she/he is on a hard surface, gently move her/him on a carpeted area. 
  • Stay close by where they can’t see you and when they’ve quieted down, go to them and talk in a very calm tone using short sentences depending on their age 
  • For a child 6 months to 18 months use shorter more precise phrases e.g. “sorry baby’s mad,” “brother took your toy,” “it’s not yours”, “get a new one”.
  • For a child 18 months and older use simple sentences e.g. “you are mad because brother took the toy”, “It wasn’t yours, it was his”, “do you want a new toy?” “let’s go find one you like”
  • Attend to your child’s feelings when they cry to communicate their frustration by using the above phrases and sentences. 
  • PRAISE your child any time they use words to communicate their needs and/or feelings. 

NOTE: consult your child’s health care provider when your child’s head banging occurs at times other than attention-seeking or preparing for sleep as it could indicate teething pain or an ear infection.  Similarly, seek medical advice when your child’s head banging causes injury or is accompanied by delays in speech, language, play, and social skills as it could be associated with other neurological disorders.

 

Jain, Shailesh. “Head banging: cause for worry, or normal childhood development?” Current Psychiatry, vol. 12, no. 12, 2013, p. 59. Gale OneFile: Health and Medicine, Accessed 27 July 2020.

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