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Get Some Sleep: Are your kids night-time head-bangers?
June 21st, 2011
02:01 PM ET

Get Some Sleep: Are your kids night-time head-bangers?

Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She blogs on Tuesdays on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.

We were supposed to be talking about Kathy’s insomnia, but, as is often the case, she was wanted to tell me about a loved one’s sleep problem, in this case, her grand-daughter’s.

“She is banging her head up and down every night, sometimes hitting the headboard. It is scaring her parents to death because, well, it is kind of creepy, and they are afraid that she has psychiatric problems, not to mention, they are worried she could hurt herself.”

She nailed every concern that parents have when a child displays rhythmic movements. Sleep-related rhythmic movements are very common; at nine months, research shows that 59% of all infants have rhythmic movement disorder (RMD); by 18 months, the prevalence is 33%; and by age 5, the prevalence has declined to 5%.

Technically speaking, we label these rhythmic movements as a disorder only if they: 1. Cause injury; 2. Interfere with sleep; 3. Result in significant impairment in daytime function. However, for simplicity’s sake, I will use the acronym, RMD to describe the whole phenomenon.

In most cases, RMD occurs, as stated above, in pre-school children who are neurologically normal. It is very unusual to have RMD present in adulthood, and when it does, there is serious concern for seizure disorder. Even in children who present at the classic age, we are careful to keep seizure in mind, and for that reason, an overnight polysomnogram (sleep test) is recommended.

The rhythmic movement usually occur at the transition from wake to sleep, but can continue into sleep. They can occur when children are drowsy. They involve stereotyped, repetitive movements that involve large muscle groups, for example, head banging, head rolling, rocking on hands and knees, body rolling, leg banging or rolling. One way to be sure that this is not seizure is to gently ask the child to stop doing it. In RMD, if the child is awake, she will be able to stop, whereas in seizure, she will not.

We do also see RMD in children who have autism or other developmental delay, but the difference is that they will do the movements while fully awake as well as while drowsy. For this subgroup of patients with RMD, the disorder often persists into later childhood and indeed adulthood.

Some research does show an increase in anxiety levels among children with RMD, but there is little evidence that serious psychiatric problems are a cause. Experts believe that these behaviors are likely a form of self-soothing or self-stimulation if there is a lack of it in the environment. Some studies suggest that for some children there might be an element of attention-getting behavior or passive aggression.

It can run in families, but the genetics have not been described. There seems to be no gender difference and so is just as likely to occur in boys as well as girls.

We diagnose it by clinical history and overnight sleep study. It is important that a sleep center know that there is a specific protocol that needs to be followed as well as specific scoring criteria.

The main reason we treat RMD is real or potential self-injury. It is usually the head banging that poses danger. Medications such as benzodiazepines or tricyclic antidepressants have been tried, but are not well studied, not approved for use in children, and should be considered a last-ditch therapeutic option.

A more creative approach to mitigate the danger of head banging is to have the child practice the movement in the daytime with the difference being that the “game” is to stop just short of the pillow or headboard. Often, the new learned behavior will persist into drowsiness and sleep. Another non-pharmacologic approach that shows promise is hypnosis.

The information contained on this page does not and is not intended to convey medical advice. CNN is not responsible for any actions or inaction on your part based on the information that is presented here. Please consult a physician or medical professional for personal medical advice or treatment.


soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. Chris

    Have you tried turning down the Metallica \m/ (>.<) \m/

    June 21, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      lol, I was thinking the same thing when I saw this article!

      June 21, 2011 at 20:46 | Report abuse |
    • Someone

      I turned down the Metalica and turned up the SLAYER!!!!!

      June 21, 2011 at 22:24 | Report abuse |
    • C.C.

      I was thinking of The Excorcist.

      June 21, 2011 at 22:49 | Report abuse |
    • Captian Obvious

      Amazing how the obvious cause is ignored by big pharma shill media. Back in the 70s the doctors would admit to us it was VACCINE side effects. Now they just call it normal. I guess it is since we all have brain damage it is. Strange how Amish don't have this problem.

      July 4, 2014 at 03:52 | Report abuse |
  2. me

    I did this until I was a teenager. We called it 'pounding'. I just gently pounded my head on the pillow, not the headboard, until I went to sleep. Basically outgrew it. Although as an adult I usually teased my parents that they made crazy and that is why I did it.

    June 21, 2011 at 17:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Us

      Same here. I did it untill i was 15. Even to this day i can, if i would like, fall asleep doing this and continue to untill i wake up. There is absolutly nothing abnormal about me. I am very healthy (hard-headed and strong neck/upper back muscles due to it lol), an avid martial artist, and have excelled in all sports my whole life. It was and is soothing. I am now 26 and have never had a seizure, never unjured myself, or been admitted because of psycological reasons. Doctors these days just want money and to give reasons why they insist on perscribing "meds" to children. I see this as a problem. It may have been in part of biological mother's drug use, but i never once had issues arrise from this head-banging. I actually had many different rythms of banging my head.

      June 21, 2011 at 20:32 | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      I was a rocker and a head banger too. I have turned out normal. I have 2 college degrees, a successful career, a beautiful family and am an Ironman. I don't do it anymore but I did it well into my teens. I broke a few couches in my time but I am fine now. I, as others have said have grown out of it. Filling kids with drugs is not a real solution.

      June 24, 2011 at 07:36 | Report abuse |
    • Laura

      Im sixty four now but when growing up I was a head rocker till fourteen or fifteen. My two sons were also
      rockers though their display was a little different. My oldest would lift his leg to his knee and kick to bed and also
      lift and bang his head, whereas my youngest would rock back and forth. Both were awake at all times.

      July 9, 2011 at 21:03 | Report abuse |
    • adp

      I did it well into adulthood. I didn't stop until I entered my first serious relationship that involved someone moving in with me. I suddenly realized I couldn't do it anymore, and forced myself to stop. It was a bit difficult and I feared I might do it in my sleep, but apparently I never did. Thank God! I think I did it to soothe myself- I'd been doing it seince I was a very young child.

      July 23, 2011 at 20:23 | Report abuse |
  3. Rocksor

    \m/ (>.<) \m/

    June 21, 2011 at 18:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bob

    I would make a very padded headboard. Seems simple.

    June 21, 2011 at 19:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. cj

    I gently banged my head on the pillow too, i think i was in my early 20's when i stopped. Grew out of it as well.

    June 21, 2011 at 19:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jordan

      Sadly I'm still doing although I am sixteen I hope I stop because, I sometimes wake up with mild headaches. I've been doing this since I was around 6 weeks.Their was another website that said that it causes psychiatric problems or mental retardation but I think that's a bunch of bull. because I am very payed back and calm and if I were mentally ill I surly would not be typing this. ((:

      July 20, 2014 at 07:54 | Report abuse |
  6. cpc65

    I used to rock back and forth on my hands and knees with my head on the pillow. My brain was always going so I had to tire myself out to sleep. I didn't outgrow it until my late teens. One brother was a banger and the other has no such issues.

    June 21, 2011 at 19:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. LL

    I was a baby headbanger. Scared the babysitter!! Stoped at 4. I remember it was only self soothing. I fidget to sooth myself now. It's a high-energy fidget release thing. No other related problems. DO RELAX!! :)

    June 21, 2011 at 19:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Chuck

    I did it until I got married. I am 62 now. So did my brother and sisters.. No harm done (except for the nieghbors scared to death we were killing ourselves).

    June 21, 2011 at 19:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Af090391

    If 59% of infants go through this, is it really a disorder? I mean, that means that the majority of kids have it, it'd be more like a unwanted natural order.

    June 21, 2011 at 20:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. gary

    Huh, 41 years old and still banging my head. Actually stopped for several years when I was married because my wife at the time would kick me everytime I did it.

    June 21, 2011 at 20:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Barbara

      "Like"

      When my husband and I were dating, he'd keep bothering me because he thought i was having a bad dream..and it is pretty freaky to watch I am sure.

      June 21, 2011 at 21:29 | Report abuse |
    • C.C.

      Mine would tell me to grow up but I just can't being a music freak.

      June 21, 2011 at 22:57 | Report abuse |
  11. davis

    I hope that no parents jump to the hasty conclusion that this is a disorder that needs "medication" or is a sign of autism. I used to rock myself to sleep, my entire body moving back and forth rapidly, for hours until I fell asleep. This continued through my teens and I stopped when I went to college, because I had a roommate, and, eventually the desire to do it simply went away.

    In my experience, the need to rock back and forth before bedtime was simply self-soothing, as the article termed it. It enabled my mind to wander and my body to tire out. I did it with full knowledge that it was "weird" and have since stopped. My fiance and I laugh about it now.

    Just a weird part of growing up for some people. That's all.

    June 21, 2011 at 20:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rebecca Z,

      Me too... I was a body rocker through college. It stopped when I got married, but when things get stressful I sometimes find myself rocking again. It's actually a relief to learn other people were just like me. My mother would yell at me and call me retarded, which only increased my anxiety and the need to soothe myself. I love to share these articles with her as a way to educate her. Not so much a rubbing of her nose in it, but a way for me to break free of all the labels she loved to ascribe to me.

      June 30, 2011 at 12:43 | Report abuse |
  12. Ron Pebble

    RMD is not an acronym, but an abbreviation. You would have to read it as a word if it were an acronym. Not easy when there are no vowels. HAHAHAHA!!!!!!! :-D

    June 21, 2011 at 20:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mr. Bones

      Dude, it's pronounced "earmed." Like "earned" with an "M."

      I mean, DUH.

      June 22, 2011 at 10:14 | Report abuse |
  13. Karen

    My son would bang his head on his pillow, and you could hear him quietly rhythmically singing the alphabet. He would also do this as he was waking up. Grew up just fine and dandy. :)

    June 21, 2011 at 20:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jennifer

      my son has always banged his head at night it was worse when he was under 18mos but he is 2 1/2 and show no signs of letting up. it is worse when we are away from home where he is not in his bed. my son also does it when he is mad which is also most of the time when he is sleepy. oddly enough though he like to sing his abc's but not while he is banging his head. how old was your child when he grew out of it.

      June 26, 2011 at 21:38 | Report abuse |
    • Julia

      My son bangs his head on his pillow and humms from about 1yrs old. He is now 5yrs old and still does it. He bangs when something or someone disturbs him and last for about 10mins. I taught that banging his head would have slowed him down when it came to learnning. I think that it actually made him smarter. He is very advance for his age and has better memory than me in my 40's. I hope this will stop soon, it drives me crazy because he is so loud with it.

      February 5, 2013 at 22:54 | Report abuse |
  14. Barbara

    I did this from infancy to 22 years old. I had weird sleep problems, too. It would take me forever to fall asleep, I would wake up wide eyed in the middle of the night, rearranging my bedroom or listening to music for a couple of hours. I would then start the whole going to sleep process again; Head pounding on the pillow until I passed out.
    It all stopped around the time I got engaged. I really think for me it was a soothing method. Thank goodness, neither of my kids show signs of this.

    June 21, 2011 at 21:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. jimzcarz

    I did this as a kid. Nice to see other people out there as screwed up as I am..

    June 21, 2011 at 21:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. jackie

    sometimes when i am asleep i would hit my head on my head board so hard that i would wake up with a head ach but i used to bang my head for getting in to bed

    June 21, 2011 at 22:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Dave

    And I thought I was the only one. Did this until I was a teenager myself. And now my son does it. Which means we can not share a hotel room with him. So he gets his own room, and the rest of us get one room. Funny. Now I know how my parents feel.

    June 21, 2011 at 22:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Fleur de Lis

    I am 37 years old and still bang my leg at night. I've never injured myself, or have problems sleeping, or have it affect my next day... so I don't have the "disease" but why then do I still bang my leg at my age??? This was suppossed to wear off according to the article. I'd really like to know why I do it.... though I don't realize I am doing since I'm asleep. Weird!

    June 21, 2011 at 22:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Austin

      I have done this since I was a baby, and continue to do so now at 22. The head banging is predominately what I do, but my entire right leg also goes and I also roll constantly. I have hit my head on head boards or walls or bed posts and even past girlfriends heads as we slept. I have always thought I was alone and am with you, I would love to know why I do this.

      July 7, 2011 at 06:57 | Report abuse |
  19. Zayrina

    I did the head rocking and it caused giant rats in my hair and drove my parents nuts. Quit in my teens.

    June 22, 2011 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. rhonda

    Head bangers are getting the stimulation and touching that they aren't getting from their parents. Kids who rock back and forth when nervous or anxious, same thing, they are giving themselves the rocking that soothes them that they aren't getting enough of or not getting any of from their parents.

    June 22, 2011 at 02:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • adp

      That may be true for some people, but we can never assign a single motivation for the behavior of millions of people.

      July 23, 2011 at 20:29 | Report abuse |
    • Debbiestoc

      Not true. My son does it (he's 12) and it started as soon as he could lift his head as an infant. He had ALWAYS been loved, and cuddled and we've ALWAYS been attentive to his needs. Simply not true it's a sign something is lacking. It's more of a tick or self-soothing mechanism. Done all the research and consulted with pediatricians and I'm satisfied he's just fine.

      January 24, 2013 at 19:11 | Report abuse |
  21. minnesota guy

    I used to do this when I was a kid. I never hit the wall though. It continued into adulthood. I shared a hotel room with a friend in Chicago and she video taped it on here Phone. It was weird to watch myself do it! I do it in my sleep.

    June 22, 2011 at 09:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. AGuest9

    I had a friend who did this in high school. He would wake up in the midde of the night and bang his head on the pillow until he fell back to sleep. His mother told me he had done that ever since he was a little kid. It was bizarre to watch, and this is the first I'd ever heard of it, other than him.

    June 22, 2011 at 12:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. erich2112x

    I banged my head till I was 8 and I turned out fine. Have 4 other siblings that did the same, all fine, all middle aged now. I think it started with my oldest brother and the rest of us just sort of fell into tempo as we came up. My poor parents, you'd have thought there was a railroad being built in that house.

    June 22, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Jack

    Am I a freak now for jerking myself off to sleep ???

    June 22, 2011 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. RaZZZ

    To have a healthy circadian rhythm, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be a ‘9-5er’, going to bed at 10pm and waking at 6am every day. Some people with a healthy circadian rhythm are morning people – they sleep and wake earlier; and some are night people – who prefer to sleep and wake later. Regardless of the times that you go to bed and wake up, someone with a healthy circadian rhythm can sleep and wake at the same time every day. They are able to wake up when their body naturally tells them, after getting restful, quality sleep. Current research shows that if we were able to sleep on a free-running circadian rhythm, meaning if we were placed in darkness without any natural light, we would naturally go to bed and wake up in 24h and 11min cycles. The e-book called Get To Sleep Now! It's got 39 tips to following asleep. http://instantlyfallasleep.com including things to avoid like eating late, reading, watching TV, exercise, a fight. Save all these things for the daytime.

    June 22, 2011 at 21:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. David

    Turn off SLAYER!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 23, 2011 at 23:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. alexiis

    i do this. and cause rats in my hair from the couch

    June 24, 2011 at 04:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. alexiis

    i do this. and cause rats in my hair from the couch. i dont do this to go to sleep. (sumtimes) i do this when im sittin on the couch...... do i have this?

    June 24, 2011 at 04:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. whatever

    I used to have this problem when I was a kid. My parents would catch me rocking back and forth when I was drowsy in bed. I just grew out of it. I think it stopped around 1st grade. It wasn't a big deal other than it was a pain to comb my hair in the morning.

    July 10, 2011 at 11:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Lisa

    My oldest son did this every night while falling asleep. He would bang his head up and down and make a la la sound with it. It was like he was lulling himself to sleep. He didn't hurt himseld, he stayed on the pillow and we honestly just thought of it as cute...weird, but cute. He out grew it when he was young, maybe by 5, but sometimes when he was older, in his teens, he would talk and once or twice actually walked in his sleep. He graduated college 2 years ago with honors.

    July 14, 2011 at 15:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. lulu

    My husband is 25 and he still bangs his head to fall asleep and sometimes if he gets startled in the night. He doesn't have to do it, but it is soothing and helps him fall asleep, so he usually does. It only bothers me when he wakes me up in the middle of the night! He is totally healthy with no psychological or physical issues.

    July 15, 2011 at 16:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. bkgc

    My son has done this since he was a baby! I have often been concerned because he does not bang his head gently on the pillow he, for lack of a better word, slams his head onto the pillow! He is now 5 and still does it but responds and stops when i ask him to! Not to mention he talks like crazy in his sleep! Just wondering how normal this is!?

    September 8, 2011 at 13:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Amber

    I have 4 uncles and a dad that bangs or rocks their head and/or leg to sleep. I like rubbing my feet together but my 16 year old daughter has been banging her head and torso since she was an infant. Nowadays she wears an iPod and sings very loudly and bangs her head from about 6 inches high ( face down) for hours sometimes. I've never asked her to stop. A few family members have made comments. When she was elementary aged and less embarassed, she would bang her head on the seat in vehicles and everyone could feel the drag back in the vehicle. It seems to be comforting. I imagine she will stop when she has a closer relationship with people (roommate/husband). She doesn't sleep over friends' houses too much but, can stop when around others.

    October 23, 2011 at 01:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Carla

    I am a 15 year old african American female and I have been doing this since I was an infant. I bang my head (not on a pillow, on the mattress) only on the left side of my face. I usually sing songs while I do this. After a while I'll start to shake my leg violently untill I fall asleep. I do the leg shaking and banging in cars too. I happen to do it more than usual when I'm anxious or nervous. My parents have been begging me to grow out of it. If there's a medication out there to stop it, then I REALLY want it lol(:

    November 11, 2011 at 09:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. diana angela sivilla gomez

    pero k pasa con los adolesenthes mi hija lo hace se golpea la cabeza xk?? :/ alguien ayudeme ...

    January 31, 2012 at 12:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. Anntonette

    I started banging my head on my pillow when i was 6 years old .. Now i am 14 & still banging my head on my pillow every night. I'm scared i might get a concussion so i'm trying to stop. But it helps me fall asleep easier. When i have trouble sleeping i bang my head on my pillow.

    October 17, 2012 at 20:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. tonya

    i started banging my head on my pillow when i was 9mos old. into adulthood . i stop when i got marry ,but i still think i have it ,because i shake my leg now. i shake until i fall alseep and if i wakeup i start shakeing my leg again.

    November 15, 2012 at 21:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Andrea

    My son has banged his head on his pillow for as long as I can remember. He is now 8 and still will not sleep at a friends house. It is so comforting to see that there are kids and now adults that do the same thing. I do worry that he isn't getting enough sleep some nights because of his constant head banging. Hopefully he grows out of this or at least doesn't do it every night.

    January 4, 2013 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Stan

    Like many others above, I, too, banged my head on my pillow as a kid. Stopped when I went to college, so as not to seem odd to my roommate. I'm happy to report that I've had no psychological problems and have a wonderful career, family, etc. Rarely, I may still rock side-to-side a little if having trouble falling asleep - although I don't think my wife has ever noticed. In addition, I come from a loving family, so I don't think I did this due to a lack of affection. It just felt good. Don't worry if your child is doing this.

    March 6, 2013 at 14:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Victor

    Im currently 17 and I still do this, I gently bang my head on my pillow to help me relax when going to bed, I don't have a NEED to do it but it feels nice and if I can I do. I always did this even when I was an infant.

    March 7, 2013 at 03:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Victor

    Although I don't do this when someone else is in the room >.< it's weird. But now I can explain that I probably have rmd to everyone that asks, also I feel fine, my brain and body's working just fine, not like I'm BASHING my head in :D

    March 7, 2013 at 03:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Victor

    And (this is embarrassing) but when I was young I used to hum "jingle bells" while doing it XD

    March 7, 2013 at 03:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Richard L

    My son has been diagnosed with PDD-NOS since he was 3. He is 7 now and has been bumping his head ever since I can remember. He has a huge bump on the back of his head that the doctor is not concerned with, but it just happens to be the spot that he bumps against. He does it every night, multiple times, and it literally shakes the house. I have just took his bed down and he is sleeping on his mattress and boxspring until I can get him a new bed without a headboard or side rails. Is this ok or am I doing him more damage than good? Any advice is more than appreciated. Thanks.

    April 3, 2013 at 23:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • vawna

      my son does the same thing all night, every night, as well if you find anything that helps or makes it stop all together please share the info.!! thank you

      July 22, 2013 at 19:56 | Report abuse |
  44. NA

    I was a headbanger too mostly during childhood and realized the only way I didnt bang my head was when I was sleeping in the same room as others where I would feel embarrassed if I did. It was like almost like an itch that felt much better headbanging. Im 23 now and havent teen doing lit for so many years I started controlling it more in my early teens and to this day when I am about to go to sleep I get the urge to do it but I dont. Im perfectly fine and healthy.

    May 19, 2013 at 23:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  45. vawna

    my son is 4 yrs old and has been pounding his head and kind of yelling all throughout the night every night since he was a baby. i have taken him to several doctors and sleep specialist they have done tests both overnight and just a few hours, they say he has "rhythmic movement disorder" all they want to do is pump him full of anxiety meds, i did try them with him for a few days and it made no difference so i stopped giving them to him i dont believe in drugging a 3-4 yr old esp. if it does not help. this is becoming a problem because he isnt getting the sleep he needs and either am i esp. being 6 months pregnant, is there anything i can do to help make it better or stop it all together??? please help!!!

    July 22, 2013 at 19:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  46. JG

    Had no idea other people experienced this. I'm told I've been doing this since I was about a year old, I guess it's just such a habit now that I can't shake it. I'm 21 now and "head-bang" way less than I used to as a child, but sometimes I still feel the urge. Usually only while laying in bed on my front, and usually while music is on. I used to do it in cars, hotels, planes, you name it. Everyone thought it was strange and it was a bit embarrassing at times, but I seemed to have turned out ok. I'm a 4.0 college student on a Division I swim team and I hold a bunch of school records. I've always been normal and extremely athletic so I don't really see the need to treat this as a disorder. It's a habit plain and simple.

    February 19, 2014 at 12:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  47. Joe

    I'm 26 years old and I still do this only I have to listen to music it helps me when I have an anxiety spell which almost everyday I can put ear buds in and do it for hours

    March 2, 2014 at 22:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  48. ducky

    I would bang against the wall until my parents yelled at me to stop and then bang into my wrists folded in front of the tip of my forehead and that would be loud enough to get another holler so i d cover my wrists with edge of pillow, and do this usually till 4 am even until daybreak and finally fall asleep

    July 28, 2014 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply

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