Does your toddler hit themselves and bang their heads often? Such actions are known as self-injurious behavior (SIB). Although this behavior could worry you, it is usually just a developmental phase or your toddler’s way of expressing emotions.
If you observe closely, your toddler might be resorting to self-injury when they are angry or want to be heard. Studies have found that 15% of young children exhibit SIB during their early developmental years (1).
If SIB persists and causes significant damage to your child’s body and health, consult your pediatrician, as persistent and chronic SIB is associated with developmental delays in children.
Why Does A Toddler Hit Themselves?
During toddlerhood, your child will be aware of their surroundings and start exploring the world around them. They will also learn to communicate their wants and needs. However, they might not have the full capabilities to achieve everything or verbally communicate their desires.
Such limitations combined with the challenges in understanding the world may cause anger and frustration, resulting in hitting themselves. Studies have found that children exhibit such behavior when they are tired, alone, or upset. Infants are also known to bang their heads at bedtime (2).
Sometimes, toddlers hit themselves or bang their heads in excitement. It may seem serious, but it is normal for toddlers to express strong emotions in different ways. Such actions are similar to how adults clap hands or jump in excitement. Adults are well-versed with the standard ways to express excitement, while babies aren’t, so they do what they feel like.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that toddlers may also hit themselves or bang their heads to get relief from pain. For instance, if your toddler hits one or both sides of their head or pulls their ears, it could be a sign of ear infection, and if they hit and bite themselves, they might be experiencing teething pain.
Seeing your baby hit themselves can be hard. If such behavior is not stopped early on, it might become a habit. So, you need to have an action plan in place to prevent such episodes of deliberate self-harming.
How To Stop Your Toddler From Hitting Themselves?
The first step in stopping self-injurious behavior in your toddler is to identify the cause. Once you know the cause, it becomes easy to intervene. Here are a few ways to prevent injuries until your toddler learns safer ways of expressing their desires.
- Toddlers do not have the awareness that hitting their head onto some things could cause injury. So, make sure you create a safe environment around them by moving them away from sharp objects or removing these objects.
- You can prevent them from hitting themselves by blocking their fists or holding them in your arms and comforting them. The key here is to provide a loving and comforting environment so that they can let go of anger and frustration.
- Use comforting words and assure them that everything will be fine. If they do not calm down, give them something to hold or squeeze, such as a soft toy.
- If you notice the hitting and biting is due to teething pain, give them a good-quality teether to bite on.
If your baby resorts to SIB due to toddler aggression or excitement, you need not worry, as this generally resolves once they are a little older.
Make sure you do not shout or punish them for such behavior because it might give them attention and provoke them to do it more often. Instead, ignore their reaction and focus on distracting them by giving them their favorite toy, comforting them, or taking them outdoors for a while.
When Is It A Concern?
Although SIB is common among toddlers, it could indicate an underlying medical or psychological condition in some cases. If your child’s SIB persists even after five years of age, it might be a sign of developmental disabilities (1).
If your toddler hits themselves or bangs their head often for no specific reason, it is best to observe the behavior and report it to your pediatrician. Noting down the time, frequency, and the child’s behavior may help you explain the condition better.
However, if your toddler hits themselves to grab your attention or to show their strong emotions, you need not worry, as it is just their way of getting along and understanding the world.
While toddlers learn to understand and express their emotions, be patient, give them time, and do not yell or shout at them. Also, make sure they do not hurt themselves and shower them with all the love they need.
2. Jane Summers, et al.; Self-Injury in Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disability: Exploring the Role of Reactivity to Pain and Sensory Input; Brain Sciences (2017).