Q. Every time my 15-month-old daughter gets upset, she bangs her head on the floor. I thought it might be her way of getting attention. In every other way she is developing just fine. What could be going on?
A. Many babies and toddlers -- up to 20 percent, in fact -- exhibit head-banging as a self-soothing mechanism at one point or another. Some babies find the rhythmic movement comforting, and may gently bang their heads against the crib to fall asleep. Others do it in response to pain (particularly earache pain) or, like your daughter, frustration.
While head-banging in response to frustration is not that unusual or, in general, dangerous, it's a good idea to help her develop other strategies for dealing with her negative emotions. You can't always prevent her from being frustrated, particularly as she enters the toddler years, but you can help her to label and cope with her emotions. For example, if she is upset because she can't have something she wants, acknowledge her feelings right away by saying something like, "I know you want that tool of Daddy's, but it can hurt you. I know you're sad right now." Then suggest an alternative: "Come -- let's look in the kitchen for a safer tool."
Offering an alternative gives your daughter a choice, taking away the frustration she experiences when she feels like she has no control. Besides all that, finding an alternative distracts your daughter and may avert a meltdown.
Sometimes distraction doesn't work, however, because a baby is too upset or determined, and an outburst happens anyway. If she begins head-banging, scoop her up in your arms and try rocking her (if that is what she finds comforting). She may, if she is angry, try to bang her head against you. If it doesn't hurt you, you can let it continue. Otherwise, put her someplace soft like the couch. Stay near her so she doesn't fall, and let her know you are there for her by speaking to her in a soft, calming voice. Most important, don't panic or get angry. If you react more to her head-banging than you do to what is upsetting her, you are indirectly rewarding it.
Over the next several months, as she acquires more words, the head-banging should decrease. If it doesn't, talk to your pediatrician. If the head-banging exists in the context of other behaviors that suggest your daughter is not developing relationships with those around her (such as poor eye contact or a lack of a desire to be cuddled by you), or if it is happening excessively (several times a day), your doctor may choose to conduct a neurological exam.
Anita Sethi, Ph.D., is a research scientist at The Child and Family Policy Center at New York University. She has two sons.