Many kids exhibit rhythmic behaviors at night such as head-banging or rocking back and forth or making rhythmic sounds. Although these behaviors can seem bizarre, they are a quite normal part of a child’s development. About 5 % of children exhibit these types of behaviors at bedtime or naptime. Head banging is three times more common in boys than girls.
Rhythmic behaviors generally don’t reflect any underlying emotional difficulty or neurological illness, particularly if they follow the usual pattern, beginning before age 18 months and mostly disappearing by age 3-4 years and occurring mainly at bedtime or during times of stress (e.g. soothing himself from a tantrum).
Although head banging seems dangerous, neurologically normal children generally do not hurt themselves seriously in the process even though foreheads do occasionally get bruised. Head banging almost never leads to concussions, fractured skulls or other head injuries.
Here are a few things to consider that may help reduce your child’s rhythmic behavior (head banging) at night:
• Head banging can be a strategy to get attention from parents. By repeatedly going into his room or calling out to him to stop, you may be reinforcing his behavior.
• If he is in bed for a long time before he is sleepy enough to fall asleep, the head banging could last longer. You could try delaying bedtime/naptime so that he is sleepier and falls asleep faster. Don’t let his morning waking time drift later to compensate.
• Make sure your child’s developmental need for rhythmic behavior is met during the daytime with rhythmic music, swinging, rocking horses, rocking chair, etc… With enough of this activity during the day, he may have less of a need for it at night.
• Some experts have recommended putting a loud ticking clock or metronome in your child’s room to break his typical rhythm and make confusing and disruptive to his usual tempo of rocking/head banging.
Finally, rhythmic behaviors certainly do occur more frequently in children with certain neurologic disorders, in particular children who are developmentally delayed, blind, or autistic. With these other disorders, the rhythmic behaviors tend to persist longer and occur throughout the day when the child is fully awake. Usually there are other signs of the disorder aside from the rhythmic behavior. If your child is developing normally in other respects it is unlikely that there is anything else going on. You should certainly speak to your pediatrician if you have any concern about your child’s general development.