Is your baby exhibiting some concerning behavior, like pulling their hair or perhaps even eating it? Or has your toddler entered a phase where they pull other people’s hair?
Babies and toddlers can be strange little people; there’s no hiding that fact. But it’s frustrating to see our babies doing things we don’t expect.
Hair pulling is quite normal, and there’s no need to feel like it’s your fault. Most of us moms have had little ones who exhibit this behavior!
However, it’s crucial to understand why it happens and recognize what to do and how to act in these situations.
- Hair pulling in babies can be due to curiosity, self-soothing, or a disorder called Trichotillomania (baby trich).
- Pica is a disorder where children persistently eat non-food items, including hair, which can be dangerous.
- Toddlers might pull hair to express anger or frustration, or as a learned behavior from others.
- Consistent reactions, redirection, and communication can help address and manage hair pulling in children.
Why Is My Baby/Toddler Pulling Their Own Hair?
As a veteran mom, I’ve seen my fair share of strange behavior — my little ones pulling at things, smelling odd things, tasting gross things — the list goes on. When it comes to your toddler or baby pulling out their own hair, there are a few causes.
Hair pulling is generally something babies do simply because they can. The world is new and exciting for them, and even hair pulling is an educational experience. They love to explore and see what happens when they try new things.
Just because your baby is pulling their hair doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. But if you feel worried, you can observe their behavior for a week or two and then mention it to your pediatrician.
If you see that the hair pulling is hurting them, try to redirect their attention. Give them a toy they love, or move their hand to another area.
An interesting case study demonstrated this curiosity and that babies’ interest in hair decreased with gentle distraction techniques (1).
2. Self-Soothing Mechanism
Sometimes babies and toddlers use hair pulling as a self-soothing mechanism. Some babies fall asleep easily when they stroke their head or rub their nose; this could be the same. Other babies find it soothing to twist their mom’s hair in their fingers.
You may see that hair pulling generally occurs in sedentary moments such as during breastfeeding or bottle feeding or when your little one is feeling tired or upset.
Babies doing this will likely grow out of the habit as they age.
3. Trichotillomania or Baby Trich
Trichotillomania (TTM) is a disorder in which people feel an urge to pull out hair from their bodies. Depending on the severity, it typically results in bald patches (2).
This disorder generally has an onset between the ages of nine and 13 but can occur in children as young as 18 months old.
When this condition occurs in children under the age of 4, doctors refer to it as “baby trich.” Fortunately, when this disorder affects younger toddlers, it usually resolves quickly.
While adults suffering from this disorder usually do it intentionally, young children often don’t realize what they’re doing. They might not even remember it later in life.
Trichotillomania is different from the “bald patches” that form on the back of the head from an infant lying on their back. These bald patches occur because the back of the head rubs against flat surfaces during sleep, diaper changes, playmat time, etc. In clinical practice, I find that this hair begins to regrow by 7 to 8 months old when the infant spends more time in an upright position (3).
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Symptoms of Baby Trich
Usually, baby trich sufferers show both emotional and physical symptoms. However, mental and emotional signs can be tricky to spot in toddlers since many do it unintentionally. Still, there are some ways you can detect it.
Your toddler might do any of the following:
- Constantly tug or twist their hair.
- Pull their hair repeatedly in one place over a period of time, where a bald spot might appear. This could also include eyelashes or brows.
- Exhibit an urge (that they might try to resist) right before they begin pulling.
Why Does Baby Trich Occur?
Doctors are still unsure about this, although some studies suggest that lack of parent-infant interaction, low pain threshold, or parental aggression could be some of the triggers (4).
Unfortunately, although this disorder is pretty common, there’s still very little information about it. It’s often misdiagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and inappropriately treated (5).
It can be difficult for parents to witness their little one pulling out their hair, but all you can do is try to redirect their attention. If your child is old enough to understand, you can calmly ask them to stop. Avoid making a big fuss about it, as this will likely cause unnecessary stress for both of you.
Alternatively, if you feel that your little one is doing it more when you’re asking them not to, try to ignore it. This can be hard, but try to scream on the inside and stay cool as a cucumber on the outside. In this case, they may be doing it just to push your buttons.
If you worry that your little one might have baby trich, it’s best to contact a professional.
Treatment for Baby Trich
Physicians primarily treat this disorder with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This treatment helps your little one become aware of their actions (6).
The aim of CBT is to teach your child how to recognize the emotions and triggers of the hair pulling. Depending on the age, this could involve anything from wearing bracelets to carrying something around as a reminder.
The second phase of treatment begins once your little one understands the problem. This involves reversal therapy.
Your doctor might recommend placing bandages on your toddler’s fingers to make hair pulling more difficult. Another suggestion is to tie their hair back in a ponytail or cover it with a hat.
Generally, for older kids who like to play with their hair, doctors recommend giving them something with a similar texture to play with. This could be a textured pencil topper, feather, or ribbon.
4. Pica (Eating Hair)
You probably heard of this when you were pregnant (women sometimes crave strange things to eat, such as dirt or chalk). But it’s also pretty common for young children.
A baby may try eating their hair once or twice out of curiosity and never do it again. However, pica is a disorder when a child persistently eats more than one non-food item for at least a month (7).
This condition is not something to take lightly. The unnatural substances your baby puts in their mouth can contain toxins. This could lead to parasitic infections, poisoning, intestinal blockage, and even death.
Depending on your little one’s age, they could eat paint, plaster, fabric, or hair. Older kids may opt for sand, leaves, pebbles, and even animal droppings or insects.
This disorder can continue into adulthood, where experts often describe it as a severe form of self-harm.
Signs of Pica
Doctors take pica very seriously, especially when it occurs in small children. The prevalence of death is, unfortunately, high, so they will examine your little one thoroughly.
The clue to look out for in smaller children usually includes seeing your little one eating one or more non-food items (such as hair). This continues for more than one month, despite your efforts to stop them from doing so.
Why Does Pica Occur?
Like baby trich, experts are not sure of the exact causes of pica. Still, there are a couple of circumstances that might contribute to its development.
- Nutritional deficiencies: A lack of iron or zinc can sometimes cause a craving for a non-food item.
- Malnutrition: This is not a common trigger in the U.S. This generally applies in developing countries, where children often resort to eating soil or clay.
- Lack of supervision or parental neglect.
- Other conditions: Autism or other developmental disabilities, for example.
- Mental health disorders: Like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia.
Treatment for Pica
Treatment generally aims at finding a way to prevent the hair-pulling. This could include placing mittens on your child’s hands or giving them stuffed animals or blankets to comfort and distract them instead.
The next step is to ensure your little one gets all the nutrition they need. Your doctor might conduct tests to check if your child’s mineral levels are normal. If not, they will likely advise you to include more nutritious food in your toddler’s diet.
If your doctor suspects an underlying condition, they may suggest continued checkups. Fortunately, for most young children, pica is something they will outgrow.
From what I see in practice, iron deficiency anemia is the most common reason an infant or child exhibits pica. It could be associated with a high serum lead level. My routine initial workup is a complete blood count (CBC) and a lead test for children under the age of 5.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Help! My Toddler Is Pulling Other People’s Hair
As a mom who’s had to apologize countless times for a misbehaving toddler, I can relate to this one! It’s frustrating and embarrassing to face the judgmental eyes of other moms and the screams of their tots.
But what can you do about it?
1. For Babies
This will sound much like the hair pulling above, but babies often pull hair as a way to experiment and explore.
Pulling at other people’s hair helps babies to work out cause and effect. This usually occurs between the ages of 6 and 12 months.
Your baby might pull your hair when they’re feeding or playing with you, merely to watch your reaction. Will you ignore it, laugh, or get angry?
Remember, babies are learning everything from us — even how to react to hair pulling!
How Should You React?
Because your baby is working out cause and effect, the best way to react is to simply put them down and ignore their actions.
It may be a case of, “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Laughing at them can make it into a game. But getting angry or exhibiting an extreme reaction could fascinate them and make it worse.
Try this: when your baby is pulling your hair, give a clear verbal response that they can understand, like, “No.” It is important to make eye contact and remove distractions while saying “No.” Then gently remove their hand from your hair.
By doing this, you’re taking your attention away from your baby, which will clearly show them that it was unacceptable. Still, it might take a few times before they get it. Just remember to be consistent.
2. For Toddlers
Toddlers are more mature than babies and are probably aware that hair pulling hurts the other person. But hair pulling might be a way for them to express genuine anger or hurt (8).
For toddlers, especially younger ones, expressive words are sometimes hard to use. Perhaps your little one doesn’t speak yet. They may find it easier to bite, pinch, or pull someone’s hair when that person did them wrong.
Another cause could also be copying someone. Toddlers are still learning the rules of the world, and when they see other kids pull each other’s hair, they may try it too.
What Can You Do?
The first thing to do is work out the reason behind the behavior. Why is your toddler doing this? Is hair pulling something they see others do? Do they feel frustrated in some way?
Next, ask yourself how your reactions are received. Are you getting angry or being supportive?
Here’s what you do:
- Stay calm: Even if you have to fake it. Your toddler will see this, and it’ll teach them how to deal with being frustrated.
- Turn away: If you feel your toddler is doing this for attention, take that away.
- Give a consequence: If they continue, despite your reaction, tell them that it hurts and gives them a consequence, like a short timeout.
You can always teach your child descriptive words by saying that they look like they’re feeling angry or sad. But remember, consistency is key!
Babies and young toddlers who pull their own or other people’s hair are often just exploring their boundaries. However, it’s important to observe their behavior if they continue since it can sometimes indicate underlying issues.
Fortunately, most children outgrow this hairy habit. It will, undoubtedly, be something worth remembering and bringing up at their graduation party!