If you’re one of the almost 80 million families in the US, it’s likely that you have not only had children but also encountered their headbutting too. As such, parents of little kids often wonder what it is that causes this. And likewise, is this toddler head butting normal?
Typically, toddler head butting, or head banging, is normal. Toddlers have disproportionate heads in comparison to their body, so headbutting often starts for lack of control. Other times, toddlers headbutt for attention or to relieve pain. Rarely headbutting can be a sign of more serious issues.
Since truly a child’s health and well-being are parents’ biggest concerns, headbutting/banging can be quite shocking at first. And then worrisome when it continues.
I admit that even as a mom of 4, it’s not always easy for me to discern if a child’s behavior is normal or not. And checking with your pediatrician is always recommended in cases like this; it’s what I did!
So let me share with you what I’ve learned about this seemingly odd behavior from my own children’s experiences, as well as what I’ve learned from subsequent research. I’ll also add some tips along the way too, to help you keep headbutting from getting out of hand!
- What Is Meant By Headbutting? An Overview-
- Why Is My Toddler Headbutting?
- What Can I Do About My Toddler Headbutting?
- The Takeaway for Toddler Headbutting
What Is Meant By Headbutting? An Overview-
So let’s make sure we are on the same page with the definition of headbutting.
Headbutting is when someone, in this case a toddler, bumps his forehead onto another person or object. This is distinguishable from a ‘boo boo’ done on accident. Toddler headbutting is done repeatedly, either in quick rhythmic motions, or as a habit over time.
While the most common headbutting is done by bumping the forehead, but it’s sometimes done by tapping or bumping the sides of the head or even the back of the head onto something else.
Headbutting can start in infancy, but deliberate headbutting or banging is more typical for toddlers.
So what’s the difference, then, between head butting/headbutting and head banging/headbanging?
What’s the difference between headbanging and headbutting?
For many of us who are old enough to remember the popular metal band Metallica (and other metal bands of the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s), a ‘head banger’ is not something associated with a toddler. It’s a person associated with heavy metal/rock music. So let’s clarify some meanings.
- Head bangers and ‘headbangers’ are people who bop or ‘rock’ their head up and down, and sometimes in a circular patter, to rock or heavy metal music. They do this to a loud beat. Usually they have very long hair in order to accentuate the head movements. These are not toddlers.
- Head bangers and ‘headbangers’ related to toddlers are those 1-3 year olds who commonly bump their head, usually the top of the forehead, onto another person or object.
Headbanging/head banging and headbutting/head butting can be used interchangeably when referring to the toddler version. It is not interchangeable in the music context.
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Why Is My Toddler Headbutting?
Now that the definitions should be clear, let’s look at the reasons toddlers head butt or head bang.
Toddlers head butt or head bang for several common reasons, but it’s a normal behavior. One reason is just by accident since their heads are much bigger than the rest of their bodies. However, it’s also done to self-soothe when stressed or to seek attention.
Headbutting can indicate more serious issues, though, so pay attention to what’s happening around your toddler when he or she head butts such as instigators and consequences.
Many toddlers will discover headbutting as a way to self-soothe, since it provides a rhythmic feeling, almost like a rocking chair. You may find that if this is the reason for your toddler to head butt that it happens when he or she is sleepy.
Another reason toddlers head butt is for attention. My husband dealt with toddlers in this situation quite a bit, being a karate teacher for little ones for many (MANY) years. There was one kiddo in particular who used this tactic a lot because it got him laughs. So what do you think he learned from the first time he headbutted someone and others laughed? To do it again. Of course, parents got more than they bargained for by reinforcing this negative behavior as it was difficult to stop.
Stresses also can contribute to headbanging or headbutting. If a child is overstimulated, I learned, he or she might use headbutting. Kids also do it if they are under stimulated and bored.
Medical Reasons for Headbutting (aka Toddler Headbanging)
While not the most common reasons, there are some medical causes for headbutting or head banging.
- Children headbutt if they have headaches or ear pain.
- Children who headbutt may do so if they are autistic (Caution: this is not an automatic indicator of autism!).
Keep in mind if headbutting is a symptom of a medical issue or a more serious cause, then there will be other indicators too. For instance, if headbutting is associated to ear pain, then your child is probably also pulling on his or her ear and may even have a fever. He or she may cry or whine when lying down, too.
Many of us jump immediately to autism when we think about headbutting or headbanging. One reason is because of the heightened focus on the autism spectrum in recent years, which is good that people are becoming more aware. However, rarely does headbanging mean autism.
And again, as a parent of a child with ASD, I can tell you that you will likely see other indicators of autism if that’s the case.
Some Facts About Headbutting:
-More boys than girls head butt.
-20 percent of children head butt at some point.
-6 months to 3 years old is the common age range for headbutting or headbanging.
-Infants and toddlers don’t have the physical power to inflict serious damage from headbutting or headbanging onto themselves in most cases, although, my husband has received a black-eye from a headbutting toddler!
One-year-olds are likely to discover headbutting by accident. He or she is just learning to control movements and their head is large in comparison to their body. After a one-year-old head butts mom or dad, he/she will probably cry in pain or from mom or dad making a noise from being headbutted.
One-year-olds who head butt don’t usually do it intentionally.
To protect you and them from headbutting, hold him or her carefully, keeping watch over their actions to preempt headbutts.
Also, inform them in simple terms about not headbutting when it happens, so they don’t do it again. You can do this by saying ‘ouch’ and rubbing your and his/her head after the headbutt, so that the point is taken.
However, usually it’s around age two when most toddlers seem to use headbutting as a regular thing. So what should you do if your 22-month-old head butts?
If your 22-month-old head butts, it’s because he or she is likely getting attention. Try not to laugh or provide incentive for the unwanted behavior. If he does it alone like in the crib, it could self-soothing. Keep in mind context because headbutting, though rare, can indicate a serious issue.
First, rule out any other issues. For instance, is your child unusually fussy or whiny? Make sure there’s no fever or indication of an ear infection.
If it seems clear that he’s doing this for laughs or out of frustration (i.e. ‘to get what he wants), then don’t give in.
Don’t laugh about headbutting or act like it’s a fun game. In fact, headbutting is not fun at all and that’s why it’s against most all sports rules.
1.If he continues to headbutt looking for laughs anyway, then you’ll need to give a consequence. The ‘terrible twos’ are called this for a reason, and your toddler is apt to test boundaries. You need to be strict about them.
2.If he headbutts out of frustration such as when he’s angry (to get his way), then don’t give in to that either. Make it crystal clear that headbutting won’t work. Again, provide a consequence for headbutting, something that you and your spouse have agreed upon and follow through.
3.If it seems he’s headbutting to self-soothe, then make sure he’s not overly stimulated or stressed. You’ll want to minimize the stresses affecting your toddler in order for him (or her) to grow properly and stay healthy.
Ensure that the bedrails and areas he headbutts have no sharp edges, too. This is just to take precaution against any harm he can do to himself.
Should you act any differently if it’s your 3-year-old who’s headbutting?
While it’s still common for 3-year-olds to head butt, it could mean you need to provide more discipline and consistent parenting to stop it. If it seems your child is stressed, then talk to his pediatrician for advice. It may be a sign of something else, which your pediatrician can help with, too.
Some Questions to Consider:
- Are you following through with discipline?
- Are you keeping a regular routine and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule for your toddler?
- Is your child overly stimulated?
What Can I Do About My Toddler Headbutting?
Now that you understand why toddlers (and some infants) headbutt, what can you do to stop it?
If your child is headbutting, figure out the context to understand why. Then, it’s easier to stop the behavior. After ruling out underlying health concerns like ear infections, realize that infants who headbutt need more guidance and preemptive structure, while toddlers need clear consequences.
Be Proactive to Preempt Headbutting:
- Hold infants carefully. Watch their gestures and preempt any head jerks when you can.
- Don’t laugh about head butts.
- After a head butt, teach that it’s unwanted behavior and hurts others and themselves.
- Explain to toddlers consequences for headbutts and hurting others/themselves.
- Follow through with toddlers on set consequences.
- Maintain a stable routine and regular sleep/rest schedule to minimize stressors.
The Takeaway for Toddler Headbutting
The takeaway about toddler headbutting is first, that it’s normal. While it occurs 3 times more in boys than girls, most all toddlers head butt at some point.
To thwart headbutting, don’t reinforce it with laughing and acting like it’s a game.
Teach that headbutting is unwanted behavior and be sure to follow through with consequences so that your toddler understands you’re serious about stopping it.
And remember, if you have any other indicators of something serious, or it seems out of the norm, or doesn’t fit the context, talk to your child’s doctor.
If you’re just unsure or worried, talk to your child’s doctor!
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