"It scared me a lot," says the Seattle mom. "I thought all kinds of things -- that August had a mental disorder, that he'd permanently wound himself."
In fact, a small percentage of all toddlers are head bangers, and they rarely hurt themselves doing it, says Robert Landaw, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center. But what possesses them to do it?
"As kids make the transition into sleep or waking, they often repeat certain motions," Dr. Landaw says. "It's relaxing."
Although the behavior can begin as early as 6 months, it's most common between ages 1 and 2, when a child turns to a comfort object or learns to drift off to sleep naturally. Sometimes head banging is accompanied by other movements, such as chest thumping or rocking. "You can compare it to thumb sucking -- just another way of regulating emotions," says Carrie Wingate, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Westport, CT.
A child sometimes bangs his head to simulate the motion his parent creates when she pats or rocks him. "He's simply re-creating the rhythms he experiences," Wingate says.
A Fix for Frustration
For August Franzen, however, head banging was part of tantrum behavior. Dr. Landaw attributes this to a lack of language skills -- physical outbursts are a toddler's way of expressing emotion. Often, the best solution may be to ignore it, which will encourage your child to find other ways of showing his feelings.
"Head banging loses its effectiveness with no audience," Dr. Landaw says. "Give your child a kiss, put him in a safe place, and then leave for a few moments. It's the earliest form of a time-out."
That technique worked for Franzen. When August started to scream and hit his head, she would scoop him up and put him in his playpen. "If he continued to bang his head on the playpen, I'd turn away. It stopped him short."
Although head banging is almost always normal, sometimes it can indicate underlying problems such as seizures. Talk to your pediatrician if your child frequently seems unresponsive, unhappy, or seems to spend much of his time trying to injure himself. But if he's otherwise content, a little head banging probably won't hurt him.