Baby Shaking Head Side-To-Side: Why Do They Do And How To Stop It?

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You may notice a baby shaking their head while interacting with others or playing. Shaking their head from side to side is a common way older infants react to questions or communicate. Though head shaking is common in little ones, it could also indicate neurological or developmental problems.

Read this post to learn more about the typical and uncommon reasons babies shake their heads, how to deal with it, and when to consult a doctor.

Normal Causes Of Baby Head-Shaking

If you notice your baby is happy and healthy, then head-shaking is nothing to worry about. Here are a few usual reasons why your baby may shake their head. 

1. Developing motor skills

Once your baby’s neck muscles are developed, they test their ability to hold up and move the head. It is a part of normal development. Usually, by the end of the first month, a baby starts moving their head from side to side. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mention that by the age of two months, they can raise their heads while on their tummy (1). It may be jerkier initially due to developing muscle control.

2. Self-soothing

Babies may shake head side to side as a part of self-soothing. It can be a natural tactic to calm themselves down to sleep. You may notice this behavior right before your little one falls asleep.

3. While breastfeeding

While breastfeeding, babies may shake their head to latch. It can be one of the first head movements babies may make. During nursing, they might also shake their head due to excitement. Though your baby may support and move their head side to side, you should support their head while feeding until the age of three months.

4. Playing and interaction

Babies start to move their heads as a part of social interaction in the initial months. You may notice increased head shaking when your baby is excited.

5. Communication

A baby may use head-shake as a mode of non-verbal communication. As the baby grows older, they may shake their head along with making sounds to express emotions or demand something. 

Baby Head-Shaking Causes That Are Not Normal

If head-shake is associated with other physical and behavioral symptoms, then it could be due to developmental problems or certain medical conditions. We will touch on a few:

6. Ear infection or fluid collection in the middle ear

It leads to pain or discomfort. This will often be associated with fever, crying, and other signs of illness. Ear tugging along with head-shaking may then occur (2).

7. Autism spectrum disorder

Babies with autism tend to shake their head involuntarily. Frequent headbanging is sometimes observed with this disorder. In such cases, check for these associated behavioral traits.

  • Does not respond to sounds
  • No reaction if you call their name
  • No smile or eye contact

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes that early diagnosis of autism disorders may improve the child’s quality of life due to early interventions and less parental stress (3).

8. Myoclonic epilepsy

Myoclonic head jerks or spasms can be seen in babies during epilepsy. According to the healthcare experts at the Boston Children’s hospital, these seizures tend to occur in clusters and may continue to happen multiple times in a day for several days. This may be due to serious neurological disorders (4).

9. Spasmus nutans

It is a disorder where babies do head-bobbing with rapid eye movement called nystagmus. Sometimes, they may hold their neck in an abnormal position. As per the information available in the US National Library of Medicine, this condition usually occurs between four months and one year of age and resolves later in life (5).

Repetitive Side-To-Side Head-Shaking When Sleeping

Shaking of head side-to-side during sleep can be a symptom of rhythmic movement disorder (RMD). It is a neurological disorder with repeated movement of large muscles before or during sleep, especially in infants. It usually involves head and neck movements and has the following associated symptoms (6).

  • Headbanging
  • Body-rocking
  • Head-rolling

This condition might be genetic since it is often seen in families and among twins. Seek a doctor’s opinion if you suspect RMD.

When To Consult A Doctor?

You may consult a pediatrician if you notice any of the following events, along with head shaking.

  • Poor interaction with caregivers
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Headbanging causing hair loss and injury
  • Increased head-shaking during anxiety
  • Trying to self-hurt
  • Delay in development
  • No response to sounds
  • Head-shaking after two years of age 

How To Stop Babies From Shaking Head?

Head shaking may cause dizziness and disorientation in babies, and it may result in falls. It might also increase the risk of hitting the crib, table, or wall. You may follow the following tactics to prevent your baby from head-shaking.

  • If your baby does it before sleep, then try to find an alternative method to soothe them before they go to bed.
  • If it is due to stress or agitation, then create a calm environment in their room.
  • Giving a massage could help a baby to relax.
  • If you sense that the baby shakes their head as a way to throw tantrums, then do not give in to their demands. As soon as attention is given (even negative attention) it enhances the behavior.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can teething cause a baby to shake its head?

Some babies may shake their heads during teething. They may shake heads as a self-soothing behavior to cope with teething pain (7). It is a normal behavior in developmentally healthy infants during teething.

2. Why does my baby jerk his head back and forth?

Occasional back and forth movements of the head can be normal, especially when your baby is falling asleep. However, persistent bobbing of the head that is back and forth can be signs of neurological problems such as bobble-head doll syndrome (BHDS). This can be due to cysts in the ventricles of the brain and can be treated with surgeries (8).

Baby shaking head when awake and happy is typical and a good sign of motor skill development. They may use this action to interact and communicate. However, if you notice them shaking during their sleep or together with other concerning symptoms, do not overlook it. Although typical, a baby shaking head with crying, rapid movement, and other signs can indicate underlying morbidity that may require medical intervention. So stay mindful of your baby’s movements and behavior, and do not hesitate to consult your child’s doctor for prompt diagnosis and treatment.

Infographic: Less Serious Reasons For Baby Shaking Head

Although sometimes it might indicate a medical issue, generally, babies shake their heads in response to diverse stimuli. However, be observant of any unusual signs accompanying head shaking in babies. This infographic tells you about the possible common reasons infants usually resort to shaking their heads.

baby shaking head [infographic]
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • If a baby is healthy and happy, parents shouldn’t worry about head-shaking in babies.
  • Babies shake heads to hone their ability to keep holding their head up, self-soothing, or position their head to latch on to the nipple while breastfeeding.
  • Shaking head side-to-side is the most common way older infants respond to a question or communicate.
  • However, excessive or repetitive head-shaking indicates an underlying problem that a pediatrician must evaluate.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Important Milestones: Your Baby By Two Months; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
2. Middle ear infection: Overview; Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care; Cologne, Germany
3. Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders; The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
4. Movement Disorders In Depth;  Boston Children’s Hospital
5. Spasmusnutans; The United States National Library of Medicine
6. Jun Kohyama and Tomoyuki Takano, A boy infant with sleep related rhythmic movement disorder showing arm banging; Brazilian Association of Sleep
8. Bobble-head doll syndrome; National Organization for Rare Disorders
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Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more

Dr. Elna Gibson

(MBChB, MMed, Paeds)
Dr. Elna Gibson is a general pediatrician. She did her MBChB and specialization as a pediatrician in South Africa at the University of Pretoria. She obtained MMed Pediatrics (masters) with distinction in 1993. As a young specialist, Dr. Gibson spent some time in the Netherlands, and then settled in the Vaal Triangle where she has practiced for 25 years. She... more

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