I once dropped by a friend for some chitchat. She has a sixteen-month-old baby at that time. He was a naturally happy toddler and quite a sweetheart until it rolled around his nap time. There was not much crying, fussing, and tantrums, but I noticed that baby Fyodore was hitting himself in the head. On my part, I found it slightly distressing. I had such an experience with my nephews before, but it is mostly because of frustration and not self-soothe.
It turns out that hitting themselves is very common among little children. It can start as early as six months and peak at about 18 to 24 months of age. They use this behavior mostly to communicate their feelings. When Fyodore was distressed, frustrated, angry, or experiencing pain, he displayed it by smacking his head. There is nothing to worry about the behavior. Self-harming will disappear when the child finally learns to label his emotion.
At some point, self-injury can be a sign of developmental issues. But not all self-harming in babies necessarily relates to ASD. The CDC provides other red flags that could point to ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) if you are worried about it.
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The Main Reasons Why Babies Hit Themselves
Like what my friend used to say, say no to a child, and it will turn your world upside down. But of course, as parents, you should learn when to deal with that upside-down world. Children are still learning too much from their environment. Tolerating a behavior will let your child gain control over you instead of the other way around.
Sometimes, a baby’s violence is not limited to hitting. It will include biting, head banging, hair pulling, or hitting other people around them. Why are children acting this way? What’s the best way to turn this behavior around?
Your Baby is Stressed
Stress does not only take its toll on adults but also happens in little children. How do we, adults, handle stress? The answer varies as we have various outlets for letting our feelings out. With babies, they express their distress either through crying or hitting themselves. It is one way of releasing the build-up and relieving themselves from their anxiety.
But why would a baby experience stress in the first place? Strangers, separation from mom or caregiver, or physical discomfort can cause anxiety in children. And yes, babies do absorb stressors from their environment.
Just so you know, stress is also contagious. Parents can unconsciously hurt an infant with it. Parents should note not to take any arguments in front of a child regardless of age.
Your Baby is in Pain
If your baby is sick or experiencing pain, he may get violent with himself. When your baby is teething, he will likely pull his ear or hit his face to show you his distress. Children with ear infections may also showcase this sign to tell you he is in pain.
Hitting is babies’ way of self-soothing when they are hurting. If you observe this in your baby and other symptoms begin to develop, then talk to your doctor. He will mostly hit the part where the pain is taking place.
Your Baby is Frustrated
Frustration is perhaps the most common thing we could associate with why babies are hitting themselves. If they want to achieve something that they can’t, they can turn that frustration against them.
You know how building sandcastles with a toddler is fun until the waves come rolling in, and you find yourself soothing a crying little one. That’s why sometimes I am wary of the things I do with toddlers. When frustration gets in the way, it’s either I sustain the collateral damage, or they would take it against themselves.
But then again, we can’t blame babies. If we adults have a hard time dealing with our disappointments, we bet it’s also rough for them. Still, as parents, you need to talk them out of it.
Your Baby is Just Excited
Excitement is just another strong emotion that your child cannot properly communicate. Like anger or stress, overly excited babies may clap their hands, jump, hit themselves, or bite. It is a reaction that he will outgrow as his emotions get more mature.
Babies will do what they feel like doing however they feel like it. If the hitting and slapping are for no obvious physical reason, it’s nothing to be concerned about. He will figure out a way to deal with it eventually.
Your Baby Needs Attention
Like all other emotions, he may channel his desire to get other people’s attention through hitting. Apparently, most of us will respond to his hitting immediately more than if he is just crying. If he finds he can get more reaction, he may use this technique to wage for your undivided attention.
Contrary to the myth that holding a baby may spoil him, not holding your baby enough is detrimental to his health. It can cause developmental and growth delays and affects his maturity. Giving your baby your undivided attention can do so much in turning the self-harm behavior around.
Sometimes though, hitting himself may mean a different thing. If the baby is shy and hates attention, he will also resort to tantrums. Parents need to deal with their baby’s reactions as he is still learning to grasp his emotions.
Your Baby is Soothing Himself
This is exactly what Baby Fyodore was displaying, according to his mommy. It seems like a habit he acquired to help him sleep. Sure, it looks painful to us, but it is his way of preparing himself to sleep. It is similar to the reason why we rock them to sleep.
Hitting or banging of the head is a sleep-related rhythmic movement disorder. It may last for a few minutes until a baby would lapse into sleep. It should not concern you either as long as there is no risk of injury.
What to Do with Babies Hurting Themselves
Infants would resort to anything they can to attempt communication. You think that the behavior is normal among little kids, so maybe, let them be? Yes, you can, but helping them sort out their struggle is also extra important.
Here are some ways to help your baby label his emotion and prevent him from going too far with himself.
Speak reassuring words
Talking to your baby is an effective encouragement to help them verbalize their feelings. He might be an infant looking for attention or a toddler throwing tantrums, but a conversation doesn’t matter how young your baby is. If you can talk to him in the tummy, gentle, reassuring words will matter more now that he is here. It will help him ease his distress and calm both of you down.
Give your baby assistance
This is a subjective suggestion to your baby’s hitting. You should know when to assist and calm him down. It may help him manage his frustration too.
However, it is important to take note that offering your baby assistance every single time will only trigger a similar reaction in the future. He will use this behavior to control you. So, in the end, you need your better judgment when to give him the attention or do our next option. Analyze his behavior, so you will know how to deal with it later.
Pretending not to notice him will stop this self-harming behavior. As we said, he will eventually outgrow this tantrum-throwing phase. If you cannot ignore him, you can also isolate him. But in doing so, make sure that you have a safe environment by moving objects out of his reach. You can also provide extra cushion to keep him safe.
When would I get concerned about my baby’s hitting and banging his head?
ASD does not limit your baby’s self-harming. Some other signs and symptoms go along with it to help doctors rule out the condition. If you find these symptoms, seek your doctor’s opinion:
- Not responding when calling his name.
- Disinterest in playing.
- Not having any eye contact.
- Has an obsessive interest.
- Inappropriate to no facial expressions.
- Difficult to comfort.
- Little to no gestures.
When will my child’s behavior stop?
Baby’s hitting may start at about six months old and peak from the 18th to 24th month of age. Some toddlers may even go as far as three to four years old before it stops.
Are hitting and banging their head normal for babies?
In a nutshell, your baby hitting himself is normal behavior. It will wither away on its own, but then you will have to deal with it as you go.
Most parents worry that if the child is hitting himself, he is likely autistic. There’s no need to worry as your little one may simply have undeveloped communication skills. Whatever ways he can find would satisfy him, even if it means inflicting pain, he will likely resort to doing it.
The bottom line is this: each one has a different parenting technique to deal with it. It is not one-size-fits-all management as each child is unique in his own way. Some parents may say ignore, while others may say give him what he wants. The judgment still lies with each parent in a situation where they deem fit.
Have you ever experienced your child hitting himself? Let us know your experience by commenting down below.
Ann Marie is a licensed nurse in the Philippines. She had experiences in handling and assisting deliveries of newborns into the world. She also used to train in labor rooms and pediatric wards – helping soon-to-be mothers and little kids in the process. Though not a mother by nature but a mother by heart, Ann Marie loves to take care of her younger cousins as well as nephews and nieces during her free time.