Hair-pulling is a common yet inappropriate habit, which may also occur in babies. Most cases may occur due to benign reasons and out of habit. However, there could be instances where it may indicate an underlying condition. Long-term hair-pulling behavior may lead to excess hair loss, which in some cases could be permanent.
Learning the possible causes behind why a baby pulls hair could let you know when it is a cause for alarm. In this post, we tell you the various reasons why babies pull their hair, how to manage the habit, and when to see a healthcare provider.
Why Does Baby Pull Their Hair?
Below are some of the reasons why a baby may pull their hair.
- Self-soothing mechanism: A baby may pull their hair to calm themselves during situations they find stressful or whenever they feel an urge to soothe themselves for no specific reasons. You may notice your little one pull their hair when they experience anxiety, such as separation anxiety. Hair-pulling for self-soothing could be accompanied by other self-soothing actions, such as thumb-sucking (1).
- Experimentation: Babies older than six months may pull their hair to experiment with cause and effect; to see how the hair reacts to being pulled or how parents react to the action (2). It is not something to be concerned about since it is part of the little one’s usual behavior.
- Self-awareness: Babies become aware of their bodies as they grow older, and their awareness usually increases significantly between the ages of eight and 12 months. An infant between these ages may explore various parts of the body, such as the nose, toes, and even hair. The baby may repeatedly tug at their hair and might do so in a situation where they become more self-aware, such as when looking at themselves in the mirror (3)
- Habit: A baby could pull their hair out of habit with no noticeable trigger or reason for it. Some babies may have the habit of pulling hair only at specific places, such as at a daycare or when in the park (1). It could be their way of providing themselves with self-stimulation since it makes them feel good about it.
- Frustration and tantrum: Some older babies and toddlers may pull hair out of frustration or when experiencing tantrums (4). It is likely to be accompanied by other signs of a tantrum, such as yelling and screaming. The toddler may pull the hair in front of a parent or caregiver to communicate annoyance. Toddlers who pull hair out of tantrums may usually pull someone else’s hair as well.
- Trichotillomania: It is usually the only serious cause of hair-pulling behavior in babies. Trichotillomania is a type of compulsive disorder where a person may feel a repeated urge to pull their hair (5). It is a mental disorder similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder and may occur in very young children, too. It is not known what causes trichotillomania, but genetic and environmental factors may play a role.
When To See A Doctor?
Hair-pulling behavior in babies is usually nothing to worry about. However, you may consult a doctor in the following scenarios.
- Baby pulls hair to an extent it causes bleeding
- You notice bald patches on the scalp
- The hair-pulling behavior is always accompanied by colic
- Baby also pulls eyelashes and eyebrows
The pediatrician could ask you multiple questions about the baby’s medical history, behavior, and any family history of similar behavior or mental disorder. It could help rule out the presence of serious causes, such as trichotillomania, and other hair loss-related conditions, such as alopecia areta, which may have nothing to do with hair-pulling behavior.
How To Stop Babies From Pulling Their Hair?
Below are the various ways to discourage your baby from pulling their hair.
- Provide alternatives for self-soothing: Most babies tend to pull their hair to soothe themselves. You may provide them alternatives to prevent them from reaching for their hair whenever they need to soothe themselves. Pacifiers work great at soothing the baby and also keeping them calm. You may also use toys, swaddling, and even white noise to calm your baby whenever they seem stressed.
- Address the triggers: Does your baby pull hair before bedtime? The chances are that they are tired, and pulling hair soothes them. You may try identifying the possible triggers for the hair-pulling behavior and address them accordingly. Setting a routine for each day and a bedtime routine before going to bed at night could help avoid common triggers, such as tiredness, boredom, and sudden change in the activity.
- Distract the baby: It works great when your baby pulls hair with no specific triggers, but at certain places. For instance, if your baby has a habit of pulling hair while strolling outdoors, provide them with a toy to keep them engaged. You may also keep a close watch on their actions so that you may distract them before they tug their hair. Some other ways to distract the baby are talking, singing, pointing at interesting objects, or playing games, such as peek-a-boo.
- Use simple words to discourage the baby: Use a specific word or phrase when your baby begins to pull their hair. You may say “No” or “Don’t do that” to communicate your disapproval of the behavior. Avoid being too stern since it may cause the baby to repeat the behavior only to test your reaction. Instead, use a flat tone that expresses displeasure and maintain eye contact with the baby when you say it. The baby will understand that it is an inappropriate behavior eventually.
- Set rules and reinforce positive behavior: Older babies and toddlers could be discouraged from pulling their hair through rules. For instance, set a rule that the moment your toddler feels like pulling their hair, they will reach out to you or the nearest caregiver. You may also teach them to walk out of the situation when they feel the urge to pull their hair.
- Therapy for trichotillomania: A diagnosis of trichotillomania may require time since the doctor may assess the baby again at an older age to conclude the presence of the disorder. If your child has been diagnosed with trichotillomania, they could require cognitive behavior therapy to improve the self-awareness of the inappropriate behavior and control the urge or stimulus to pull hair. You may speak to your doctor or psychologist to determine the best therapy for your child.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is hair pulling a sign of autism?
Hair-pulling behavior may uncommonly occur in individuals with autism (6). However, it is not a significant sign of autism. There are several prominent early signs of autism, and hair-pulling behavior is not one of them. Your baby will require multiple screenings and autism-specific screening at 18 and 24 months of age to conclude the presence of autism. You may read more about early signs of autism in babies here.
2. Can trichotillomania go away?
There is no specific cure for trichotillomania since its causes are not well-understood. However, appropriate therapy and lifestyle changes could help a child manage the condition effectively, leading to the suppression of triggers and less to no desire for pulling the hair (7).
Babies could have several unique behaviors, and hair-pulling is one of them. Most cases are seldom anything to worry about, and the behavior goes away as the baby grows older. In a few cases, it may indicate an underlying problem. Speak to a pediatrician to determine the long-term treatment options and lifestyle changes to prevent the baby from pulling their hair.
2. Biting, pinching and hair-pulling; Raising Children Network
3. Emotional and Social Development: 8 to 12 Months; American Academy of Pediatrics
4. Challenging Case: Behavioral Changes; American Academy of Pediatrics
5. Trichotillomania; National Organization for Rare Disorders
6. Ruziana Masiran, Autism and trichotillomania in an adolescent boy; U.S. National Library of Medicine
7. Habit Reversal Training; USF Health