Has your baby begun shaking its head? Are you worried it’s a sign of a problem?
As a mother, you expect to shake your head. Crayon marks on the wall and sharp toys to step on. Substances we won’t mention in places you never dreamed of.
What you don’t expect, however, is for your baby to shake their head.
Understanding the movements your baby makes with their head and why they do it can help you identify developmental milestones as your baby grows and progresses.
Should I Worry?
We know your most pressing question — should I worry if my baby is shaking their head from side to side?
The answer — probably not!
Babies grow rapidly during their first year. One important aspect is the development of gross motor skills. Gross motor skills refer to how your baby uses the larger muscles and appendages of their body to function and interact with the world around them.
Most babies can sit up, roll over, reach for objects, and explore things with their hands and mouths by the time they are 7 months old.
Although it can be scary when you see your baby start to shake their head, most of the time they’re doing it for one of the following reasons (1).
- Exploring: Your baby may be testing how their body moves and works. Have you ever stopped to shake your head and notice how it feels? Babies react to all of these things, as well as exploring their increased range of motion.
- Entertaining: Does your baby get a happy reaction from others when they shake their head? They could be doing so in hopes of getting your attention.
- Self-Soothing: Some babies shake their heads to self-soothe when they get sleepy.
- Imitating: You may not realize it, but there is a good chance you have shaken your head at your baby. They may simply be imitating your action. As they grow, they will also learn to shake their head to say “no” as adults do.
- Fatigue: Babies that are tired may shake their heads to create dizziness that makes falling asleep easier.
- Ear Infection: Children under the age of 3 are at the highest risk for ear infections, and your baby may be trying to communicate the problem to you.
- Nursing: The habit of shaking the head may come from your baby trying to breastfeed. As your baby attempts to latch, the head often moves back and forth. They may also become excited as they nurse. The baby may also shake their head at the end of nursing to show that they have had enough feeding.
- Autism: A baby who only has the sign of head shaking usually does not have autism. Babies with autism would have additional features such as having trouble making eye contact with caregivers or nonresponsive to their names when called. They may also exhibit repetitive behaviors such as banging their heads on the crib or wall.
When Shaking Signals Something Is Wrong
As a mother, it’s natural to worry about your little one and some of the new things they do as they grow up. There are a few instances when your baby tries to express discomfort or pain by shaking their head.
If you notice any of the following in conjunction with your baby’s abnormal movements, it may be time to visit your pediatrician.
- Symptoms of an illness or injury, such as a fever, noticeable scrapes, and bruises, or a rash.
- Evidence of a fall that may have hurt your baby’s head.
- Head shaking that increases during times of stress and agitation.
- Your baby bangs their head against their crib or a wall.
- Baby having trouble making eye contact with adults.
- Other developmental delays.
- Lethargic behaviors or is having trouble waking up.
- Stiffening of limbs and muscles, unstoppable shaking or jittering movements, or trouble breathing. These are symptoms for myoclonic seizure. It is very rare, but when it happens it can be devastating or even lethal. It is important for parents to know these features and contact their doctor right away.
The most common illness that causes a baby to shake their head is an ear infection. One of the hallmarks of an ear infection in infants, who are unable to verbally express their pain, is a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or more.
You may also notice your baby becomes upset when placed on their backs, has trouble responding to sounds, or has fluid coming from their ears (2). Another frequent indication an ear infection is to blame is when you see your baby tugging on their ears.
No matter the situation, trust your mother’s instincts. If your baby is shaking their head in a way that causes you concern after monitoring the situation, reach out for guidance from your pediatrician. They will be able to help you further.
Is It A Sign Of Autism?
On its own, head shaking in babies is not usually a sign of autism. In most cases, autism will manifest in multiple ways for extended time periods, so if you have no other concerns in your baby’s movements, it’s unlikely they have autism.
However, it’s always good to pay attention in order to help discover other signs early on. Autism is a disorder that can affect a child’s development in lots of areas, so some signs may never show up in an autistic child — they may not have every sign you commonly associate with autism.
You can begin to identify these behaviors as early as 18 months in your baby (3).
There are a lot of resources available for parents trying to determine if their child is showing signs of autism. Most children will grow out of many of the common signs by the age of 3 if they are not autistic.
Some signs to look out for that may present themselves before 18 months include:
- Eye contact: As babies grow, they start to make eye contact, often while nursing. Babies who aren’t able to maintain eye contact after their eyes adjust to their world should be monitored for autism.
- Repetitive behaviors: Unusual repetitive behaviors such as banging head on objects or other maneuvers that can cause self-harm.
- Lack of interest: Babies, even at a young age, can show their interest in things happening around them. If your baby seems out of it and unable to interact, bring it up to your child’s doctor.
- Slower development: Your baby may have autism if they are hitting milestones consistently slower than other infants their age, especially delayed speech production or comprehension and poor social interactions.
Fortunately, unless your baby is showing any other signs listed above, there is little chance that head shaking should be any reason to be alarmed about. Bringing it up to your child’s healthcare specialist can help ease your worries, or confirm if any other signs you’ve seen could be a sign of autism in your baby.
How to Stop Head Shaking
You may want to stop your baby from shaking their head if the action causes them potential harm or discomfort. For example, the constant shaking may make them extremely dizzy or disoriented, leading to falls and spills.
You also don’t want your baby to accidentally hit their head on anything, such as the side of the crib, a table corner, or a wall.
To stop your baby from shaking their head, follow these tips.
- Attention: Do not react when your baby shakes their head. It may be cute, but keep the cell phone down and don’t laugh. If your baby is shaking their head to get attention, any reaction fuels them.
- Timing: Monitor the time your baby shakes their head. If the shaking occurs during nursing or before bed, there may be underlying reasons you can address. If your baby is doing it for self-soothing purposes, learn more about other methods to help your baby sleep.
- Environment: Seek to create a calm environment for your baby if it seems they are shaking their head due to agitation and stress. Remove them to a quiet place and gently rock them. Very carefully, place your hand on the back of their head and cradle the head in an attempt to still it.
- Massage: Have you ever heard of a baby massage? Grab some baby lotion or oil and try carefully using some of the techniques in the video below to relax your baby’s muscles. There are some specific tips on relaxing the head and neck.
- Consult your doctor: If the head shaking is severe or there are other signs of worrying such as developmental delays, call your pediatrician. Diagnosing problems early or having the reassurance that your baby is fine will help both you and your baby in the long run.
So… Feeling Better Yet?
The good news to take away? It’s unlikely that without more symptoms anything is wrong with your baby, and you can fully enjoy your little one and their mannerisms.
If you do notice other signs or symptoms, take them in for an evaluation. Ear infections, autism, or other serious issues can be confirmed by a doctor and you’re an outstanding mom for making sure your questions get answered!
But just remember — most of the time, baby head shaking isn’t a medical problem at all. It’s usually nothing to worry about.