The first year with babies can be quite surprising for new parents, as they reach most of their developmental milestones related to reflexes and motor skills. My overprotective instincts started kicking in when my baby first started shaking her head during her sleep. I would get up in the middle of the night, watch her shaking her head during sleep and wonder if it’s normal? All kinds of questions would storm into my mind, so I decided to find a logical explanation to it, to ease my mind. If you’re a mom who’s trying to understand your baby’s head shaking habit, then this post is for you. I’ve explained every aspect of why our babies shake their heads and what medical conditions could be associated with it.
Head shaking is a normal developmental milestone associated with developing reflexes and motor skills, but some types of head shaking can be an indication of a serious problem. Some of the developmental reasons associated with head shaking could be that your baby is trying to take control of his body, having trouble sleeping and trying to soothe himself by headshaking, trying to latch on during breastfeeding, shaking his head to mimic you while playing, or he could just be testing his range of motion. If your baby shows other signs or symptoms apart from head-shaking like crying and not meeting the developmental milestones, then the reason could be a medical one. Most of the medical issues associated with headshaking are pain or ear infection, epilepsy, autism, and other developmental issues. Sometimes head shaking can also be the result of a neurological disorder. Get your baby checked immediately if you notice other symptoms because timely treatment can prevent most of the medical issues from worsening. If your baby’s head shaking is getting out of hand and you want to stop this habit, keep track of how often and how long he shakes his head for, try changing the environment your baby sleeps or plays in, and try using relaxing techniques like massages to calm your baby’s reflexes. Head shaking with the absence of other signs is normal among babies and is most likely to end on its own with time.
Understanding your baby’s motor skills
Though babies are dependent on their parents for almost everything, this doesn’t imply that they can’t move independently. According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, usually by the end of the first month after birth, babies can move their heads from side to side.
As babies start to interact and notice the people around them, they start impersonating the sound and movements they see and hear. These movements might seem jerky initially, as babies are still learning to control their muscles. Most babies can nod their heads by the end of the first year. So head shaking is quite normal for babies and is a sign of healthy growth.
Reasons your baby is shaking her head while playing or sleeping
Watching your baby shaking his head all of a sudden can be worrisome indeed! This can be a normal sign of development as babies tend to show jerky movements during their first few months after birth, as they learn to control their muscles. Here are a few normal reasons as to why your baby is shaking his head:
Taking control over his body
Babies are fast learners who love to imitate every reaction that they see around them. As they develop, they start gaining control over their muscles and bodies.
So, don’t get anxious next time you see your baby shaking his head; he’s just learning and testing how his body works.
Sign of fatigue
Babies tend to shake their heads to soothe themselves when tired. Head shaking can make them feel dizzy and help them fall asleep faster, which is why most of the babies can be seen shaking heads during sleep.
Efforts to latch on
Most of the babies shake their heads in an effort to latch on to the breast, but you might find them doing it out of habit afterward.
Pediatricians advise moms to support their baby’s head during breastfeeding to help them control their muscle reflexes during the first 3 months after birth.
Babies around 6-8 months’ love copying the gestures of their parents and siblings. With head-shaking being the most common gesture, you will find your baby doing it quite often while playing on his tummy or back.
Testing their limits
Being the courageous beings they are, they love to test their body limits by moving certain parts of their bodies. Some 4-5 months old babies also shake their heads to figure out a way to sit up. Worry not, this is just a timely phase and shall pass in no time.
Headbanging is most common among baby boys that are around 6 months or so.
Pediatricians tell parents not to take headbanging seriously as long as it is not hard. So, rest assured for this behavior is quite normal among babies and does them no harm.
Pain or ear infection
Head shaking is the most common approach for babies in response to pain, as head shaking helps soothe the pain.
If your baby is head-shaking out of the blue and has a temperature, then this could be a sign of an ear infection. Contact your doctor immediately to treat your baby’s infection before it gets worse.
Babies with epilepsy have myoclonic jerks that are like short seizures caused by a sudden contraction in the muscles.
These seizures can affect any part of the body, like the head or neck, and are involuntary. So, your baby’s sudden head movements could be the result of epilepsy as well.
Repeated movements, like head shaking along with other signs, may indicate signs of autism in your baby. Your baby is most likely to be an autistic one if you find the following signs in their behavior along with head shaking:
- Non-responsive to their name, parents and sibling voices, and other sounds.
- Doesn’t smile, communicate or make eye contact.
- Repeat behaviors and movements obsessively.
- Bang their heads against the crib or wall frequently.
- Gain skills but lose them with time.
Head shaking can be the result of a neurological disorder, especially if your baby seems to be showing other abnormal behaviors. For instance, babies suffering from rhombencephalosynapsis show difference in the formation of brain’s cerebellum, that results in persistent head shaking for years.
Babies suffering from neurological disorders cannot achieve the usual developmental milestones and have issues related to movement, speech, and other age-related behaviors.
In rare cases, some babies or young children experience shuddering attacks, occurring spontaneously. These attacks make their bodies shudder or shiver and sometimes lead to head shaking as well.
Though these shuddering attacks are harmless and pose no threat to your baby’s health, these attacks could be the reason behind your baby’s head shaking, so keep an eye out for them.
How to stop your baby from shaking his head?
Use the following techniques to stop your baby from shaking his head:
Pay no attention
Do not make a big deal out of this habit of your baby. Instead, avoid any reaction that might fuel this behavior.
Note the frequency and duration
Make sure to note down the time, intensity, and duration of your baby’s head shake. This will help you figure out if it’s a developmental milestone or something serious.
Change the environment
Your baby could also be shaking his head due to the environment your baby is around. Try changing your baby’s surroundings and see if it makes any difference.
Use relaxing techniques
If your baby is head-shaking to soothe himself, you can try other techniques like oil massage to help calm their nerves and reflexes.
When should you consult your doctor?
Early intervention can help with developmental and neurological problems from getting severe. Likewise, early treatment for ear infections and other issues can help prevent them from worsening.
Get a professional’s help if your baby is showing the following symptoms along with head shaking:
- Not meeting the developmental milestones, for instance, if your baby is still not responding to sounds and making eye contact by the age of 4 months.
- Has other symptoms along with head shaking, like a fever.
- Seems to be anxious and tired most of the time.
- Has no control over his head movements.
- Seems like he wants to hurt himself.
- Does not show normal eye movement.
- Continues these behaviors for more than 2 years.
While head shaking can result from another developmental milestone, there might be other symptoms or behavior anomalies that can indicate a serious problem.
If your baby is shaking his head during sleeping, playing, or nursing, then there is nothing to worry about, but if the head shakes seem to be frequent and involuntary, then get your baby checked right away.