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 (92 Responses)
  1. Stephanie

    My son bangs his head and feet to go to sleep I talked to my doctor and he told me to take him to a sycaratris please help me I can't sleep please

    February 27, 2015 at 06:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Brandon Bever

    Well I have a concern about headbangers my girlfriend of 19 bangs her head still she says it releives her pain and I continue to say it is unhealthy I need a professionals advice as to how I can stop it before it hurts her it has even gotten so bad she starts bleeding from the forehead

    March 3, 2015 at 23:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SG

      Hey, Brandon. I never replied to anything/anyone on blog but feel I need to say something as I was a head banger. I'm no doctor but the pain part seem odd to me you should take her to get checked out by a doctor. I never experienced pain when I did this and I did it for hours listening to music and never any pain. It just was soothing. If she was like me its just an urge that we have to do I stopped when I moved in with my girlfriend and was embarrassed to admit to this at the time. But, you won't be able to force her to stop now that she knows you know. Again, have her see a doctor for the pain. Read my last post. I am very healthy. Maybe an M.R.I. of her head to really see what is going on.

      March 18, 2015 at 15:52 | Report abuse |
    • Shana

      I think what your girlfriend is displaying is self harm, similar to cutting or carving on oneself. What pain is she trying to relieve? I feel their are some mental health issues that need to be looked at here. She needs to find a more appropriate type of coping mechanism.

      September 28, 2015 at 17:33 | Report abuse |
  3. SG

    Its strange to read all these posts now in my 40's. I too did this and thought it was odd at the time. But like most post I'm healthly with a great career and a family. On a separate note, what me an my little brother would do is listen to music as we banged our heads on pillows. I would tell him to daydream to the music it was very soothing. I had a little bit of anxiety as a young man but quickly lost said anxiety as I became as I too was good sports and that really gave me the confidence I needed to take on the challenges of life. I did stop in my teens but recently told my wife who had this odd look on her face. Hope she doesn't think I'm crazy...lol. Will that's my story but I still wonder why?

    March 18, 2015 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
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  5. Name*Gary Derby

    Iam74 I've done it most of my life ,since can't remember. Solution. Find sex solution ,Wear lady's panty over my head. With long strong flannel night gown and pressure over my head and can sleep better .reply.

    October 15, 2015 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Katie

    Ok. So I'm 52 and I rocked until about 40 and now intermittently but rarely because of neck issues and vertigo. It was a point of affectionate jokes amongst my family. No one thought to check with our GP. I was very sick as a child. My mum wasn't warm and affectionate. I am highly strung, adult add and rubbish at relationships. But I am very warm and loving to my kids. One is autistic. I now see it as s form of self soothing developed when no one else gave it to me. That late life realisation makes me sad for the little girl I was.

    January 16, 2016 at 04:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. amber frazier

    Hi, I know this is an old article. However, just wanted to let parents know. My teen still is a headbanger – we moved him into a hammock vs bed. (Neurologist idea) It protects his head so nicely, and he has something to brag about (hammock) lol.

    February 23, 2016 at 22:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Anonymous

    Late to the party too but I too headbanged from as early as i can remember. With all the concussion cte debate i now wonder if im more likely to get alzheimers later on in life. Im now in my 40s and like others i stopped when i entered a serious relationship. I dont know if that was because of embarresment or if having someone to lay with was a soothing replacement. I often wondered if i was adopted as a child or i was dropped as a baby or was meant to have a twin and i was just missing something. Id like to say like others iveturned out fine and for the most part yeah i am but i think i may have had add or adhd or whatever they call it because me and schooling never jived and i was always a little immature, most my friends were 2 years younger than I, some younger. Weird because now my gf and friends are now older than me. All I can say is im glad to read others had similar stories and I dont feel so weird. I still get urges when I sleep alone and my gf of 22 years has no idea I ever had/have a sleep problem. That might not be healthy but i dont need that thrown at me every time we get in a fight lol. The most trauma its probably given me is my dad storming down the hallway telling me to knock it off, so if i could give any advice its dont scream and yell at him for keeping you awake. And avoid sleepovers at friends houses. I got caught once by a close friend and concocted a story that i had a dream i was being attacked and had to headbutt my way outta a tricky spot. No 10 year old should have to make up such lies.

    March 14, 2016 at 15:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Donald

    My ex wife and her son both use to pound there heads. And to this day both are nuts.

    November 4, 2016 at 22:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Ciana

    I am 12 and I bang my head I have done this since I was younger it helps me sleep I try to stop but I can't it's like a drug that never goes away. Sometime I can fall asleep with out banging my head but in the middle of the night I wake up from i 😔:(

    December 29, 2016 at 00:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Katherine

    I do this head banging thing and I'm 13 years old. Can't go to sleep without it. Is this ok?

    March 10, 2017 at 16:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Smith Family

    Hi there, We have 4 young boys with one on the way. Just about everyone and I mean everyone bumps one way or another in my husbands family. Sitting straight up or laying down. Some bump up and down on the pillow, some roll on their hands, if they are sitting straight back on the sofa forget about it. 😂 When I first seen it 10 years ago it was my husbands oldest son -19 at the time – and he did it hard and all night long and hummed with it. I'd never seen anything like it. Also, my husbands siblings and allll of their children and their children's children do it as well. I also noticed the families babies are rocked differently than I had seen or I guess maybe paid attention to before, instead of side to side like rock a bye baby – left to right – they are rocked back and forth while comfortably resting on who Ever is bumping chest. Like a rocking chair. When I looked at it like a rocking chair movement, I had some sort of relief but man when I first seen this action in my own children, my husband wasn't very surprised but I would just stare sometimes or just lay and hold them and they'd stop but as soon as I'd leave the room, a few minutes later they'd start bumping again. I asked one of them, why does he like to bump – the talker / brainiac- lol he said it felt good, it helped him go to sleep. One of my children said I don't know – figured that would be his answer, he's only 4. Lol 😝 So apparently in our families case or should I say my in-laws, it was something passed down from generation to generation. Some children were rocked that way as babies but some of them weren't. My children were sometimes when my husband or someone in the family rocked them to sleep but me, I can't get in the groove the right way to do it. So I just don't. Lol it doesn't work for me. Our 1 year old is trying to start doing it just sitting up on his own and the boys think it's so cute because they have a nickname for it. 'Bumping' well that's what the whole family on my husbands side has named it. Interesting to read about other bumpers. 🤗😄😉🙂 Well carry on as long you don't harm yourself or others.

    Oh and I read someone say something about bumping on hard things like a headboard or rails and thank goodness they just like the soft things. Then I'd freak out for sure even more than just bumping on pillows , beds and couch cushions.

    March 14, 2017 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Yvonne wood

    I though i was the only one who did this. Evry night i bang my head up and down and my feet too. I feel sleepy all tue time. I can start doing it even though im not sleepy and start feeling sleepy. Im not sure how long I have been doing this but i have been doing this for a very long time (probably since the age of 6 or 5 im 13 today. Im curious about this. Im not depressed or thinking about harming myself or non of that (i think). Im not sure whats wrong with me. I don't think i will be able to stop this.

    July 11, 2017 at 03:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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    September 10, 2017 at 20:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. TiredMom

    My son is almost two and we are going to go through speech therapy and they now having on a waiting list for octotherpary(not sure know it's for behavioral issues) he head bangs only when waking up in middle of night. The only thing that seems to not have to fight him or have him create bruises is letting him watch a movie but it seems like that's no longer doing it... he had 4 hours of sleep last few days...I have no idea what to do. Anyone with advice?

    January 14, 2018 at 04:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Cass

    I'm 16 tuning 17 and I still bang my head, sometimesgently or rough and I just want to stop but I can't cause it's the only way of can fall asleep, I wish I stopen b4 I'm 18 or 20

    March 1, 2018 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Francois Sagat

    I do not bang my head on a pillow but please check out my page. http://www.francoissagat.com

    June 21, 2018 at 03:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Camellia Grebs

    This post has supplied me a few good ideas for my new weblog. It's always nice to find good content that encourages new concepts, thanks.


    July 21, 2018 at 22:35 | Report abuse | Reply
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