My baby started shaking her head out of the blue. Should I worry about it? Learn why babies shake their head side to side and what’s normal and what’s not?
First-year of a baby’s life is filled with various development milestones related to reflexes and motor skills. It is exciting to see babies reaching for things, grabbing and sucking on everything that their little hand comes across, start rolling over, lifting the leg and that first babbles…gu..gu..ga..ga!!
However, when they do something that is unusual, tends to make us worry a little. A seven-month-old daughter of my friend, all of a sudden started shaking her head.
She shook her head when she was napping, nursing, playing, or when she was held upright. It’s been a couple of months now and she is still shaking her head. Is it something that you should worry about or it is something that your baby is enjoying? (see below to find out more)
As a new mother, worries come naturally to you when you see your baby doing something that is not in your dictionaries of normal.
While shaking head and other repetitive behaviors are normal, in some cases these behaviors might extend beyond simple shaking (neurological and developmental disorder).
I am not here to scare you but to reassure you that head shaking is quite normal, but you should always check with your pediatrician for any concern you have for your little one, just to ease your worries.
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Baby’s Gross Motor Skills
One important aspect of babies’ first year of life is their development of gross motor skills. Gross motor skills are a movement that requires a large muscle group and include broader movement such as head control, sitting, walking, and jumping.
During the first few weeks of babies’ life, due to poor muscle control, they display jerky head movement. By the time your baby is one month old, she can move her head slightly when lying on her back.
As she continues to achieve developmental milestones, her gross motor skills and muscles around the neck become stronger to support the head movement.
Baby can shake her head side to side by the time she is nine months old. The healthy growing babies can shake their heads ‘yes’ and ‘no’ by their first birthday.
Why babies shake their head side to side?
It is worrisome when you see your baby shaking her head side to side all of a sudden. Often time, it is just a sign of playfulness.
So, mama! Here is the answer to your question- Should I worry about when my baby shakes her head side to side?
Answer- Most probably not!!
If your baby otherwise seems happy and healthy, their head shaking is not a concern and just a way of their interaction with you or getting your attention.
Here are 9 most common reasons for your baby’s head-shaking behavior,
1. Learning to control their body
Babies shake their heads side to side or backward and forward to learn to control their bodies.
As their neck muscle continues to develop and gets stronger, they start exploring with themselves. They may shake their head to see how their body is working.
I remember when my firstborn was learning to lift his head when he was lying on his back or on my shoulder.
He would do jerky side to side or backward and forward moments to try to lift his head. As his neck muscle got stronger, his head shaking became less apparent.
So next time when you see your baby shaking her head, he’s just learning to control his body.
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2. When they are Excited
Some babies shake their heads when they are excited or happy. Babies often get excited when you are feeding them.
My son would shake his head side to side every time he was offered breast and even after he was done nursing. Over time, I learned that this was his cue to tell me that he is excited to eat, and he has had enough when he was done nursing.
My seven-month-old baby would shake his head side to side to just play with nipple after he was satisfied during nursing.
So next time when your baby shakes her head side to side while nursing, it’s just their way of expressing excitement.
3. During Naptime
Babies shake their heads to soothe themselves during nap time or when they are tired.
Besides shaking his head, my second-born son would also shake his hand and kick his leg when he was trying to fall asleep.
I used to get really worried seeing his doing these repetitive movements. I brought up this issue to my pediatrician and she said that “this repetitive movement causes dizziness and helps them fall asleep within a few minutes”.
By the time he was five months old, he stopped shaking his head at nap time and picked up a new skill, turning whole body from side to side!! They never fail to surprise you.
4. While Breastfeeding
When you offer your breast to your baby during nursing, she will try to latch on by moving or bobbing her head because of excitement. This head movement or bobbing may look like your baby is shaking her head.
Most babies shake or bob their heads during breastfeeding. It is quite normal. Make sure to support their head while nursing until their neck muscle strengthening.
5. During playing
Babies do shake their heads when they are playing.
I noticed my son shaking his head side to side when he was lying on his back on a playmate. As we interacted with him during his playtime, his head shaking was intensified due to excitement.
So, mama! When your baby shakes her head during playtime, endorse the moment and take a lot of pictures.
Wait… Have you started Baby Memory Book yet??
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Monkey sees monkey do! You may not realize it, but there are chances that your baby picked up this skill from you.
Often time, we shake our head when we are talking to the baby in baby language. Chances are, this is the first imitation skill that your baby learned from you.
By the time they are 6 to 8 months old, they imitate what we do around the house. Haven’t you noticed; they pick up negative things first then positive. My both kids started shaking their heads and saying “no” before they learned anything else when they were 9 months old.
7. Testing their Body movement
As soon as the baby’s muscles strengthen, they start experimenting with their body. They will start shaking their head as early as 5 to 6 months of age. Although this process may look scary to first-time mothers, it is perfectly normal.
You may have noticed that your baby trying to lift her head by shaking it forward and backward.
So, shaking the head or moving their body is just their way to test how much they can move. Trying out new skills does not last longer than a few minutes for most babies.
8. Ear infection
An ear infection can also be a reason why babies shake their heads. An ear infection can be very painful for the babies and they may also pull or grab their ear. Babies may shack their heads when their inner ear is blocked, in order to get more comfortable.
Babies also tend to shake their heads when they have colds and fever or when they are teething.
If you suspect any of these cases, seek assistance from your health care provider.
9. Possibilities of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
When you see your baby shaking her head, do not assume the worst-case scenario. However, Repetitive movements such as head shaking can be a sign of autism in some cases, if they are presented with other symptoms ( see below).
If you think that something is not right with your baby, you can always seek advice from your healthcare professional.
In general, when your baby shakes her head, she is just being a baby. It’s their way of interacting with you or grabbing your attention. But if you still have a concern, then worth checking for an infection or autism in rare cases.
Is head shaking a sign of Autism?
Head shaking is considered a normal part of a baby’s development.
However, head shaking along with other repetitive movements may indicate that your baby might be on the autism spectrum.
If you suspect something, first thing to do is, start paying attention to identify not-so-normal behavior in your baby. These behaviors are manifested as early as 18 months of age. Most kids outgrow these behaviors by the time they are 3 years of age if they are not autistic.
If you think your child is autistic, contact your doctor immediately as early intervention is crucial for babies with signs of autism.
If your child is on the autism spectrum, along with head shaking, he might show one or more following traits.
1. Poor eye contact
If your baby fails to make eye contact with you or other people around him should be monitored for autism. Generally, babies start making eye contact by the time they are 3 months old. Especially, while nursing they should be making eye contact with the mother.
2. Doesn’t smile back
Babies start interacting with everyone as early as 6 to 9 weeks of age in form of a social smile. They smile whenever they see a human face. If your baby does not return the smile back at you, they need to be monitored.
3. Prefers to play alone or not interested in other kids
Kids like playing with other kids and imitating what others are doing. If you see your kid not interacting with other kids and prefer playing alone, it is a red flag.
4. In their “own world”
If your child appears to not hear you when you talk to them and they are in their own little world, take a note of it.
5. Doesn’t point out things
Usually babies start pointing at things when they are 8 to 9 months old. For instance, pointing at a car or pointing to a snack or toy that is out of reach. If your baby doesn’t point at interesting objects by 14 months of age, talk to your doctor about it.
6. Doesn’t like to play “peek-a-boo”
Most babies like playing peek-a-boo games. It’s their way of interacting with humans. Kids with autism don’t respond to peek-a-boo games.
7. Poor communication skills
A healthy baby communicates with people using hand gestures and responds to you when you talk to them. By the time they are 8 months old, they start pointing out things and expressing themselves by making sounds. As early as 12 months of age, they start following your direction.
A baby with autism,
- Doesn’t respond to name by 12 months of age
- Does not express themselves
- Doesn’t point at things
- Doesn’t follow your directions
8. Loss or deterioration of skills
Some kids with autism show regression in their acquired skills around age 2. They start to lose many of the social (making eye contact) and communication skills (following direction) they had mastered.
9. Failure to babble
A child with autism does not start babbling until they are 12 months old due to a delay in speech. Whereas a healthy child starts babbling when they are 8 months old.
10. Repetitive behavior
A child with autism shows repetitive behavior for an extended period with no sign of learning new things. Such as lining up a car over and over again for a long time, hand flapping, finger flicking.
They may show unusual attachment to toys or things, like, always holding on to a string or having to put on a shirt before pants. Repetitive behavior should be considered a red flag for Autism spectrum disorder.
11. Head banging
Kids do bang their heads when their demands are not met. However, when your baby bang head to the wall or crib in spite of being hurt, then you should start worrying about it. They may start banging their head violently during the moment of anxiety.
12. Does not want to held by you
A child with Autism does not like to be held by parents. You may notice this behavior within a few months after birth. For instance, they don’t like to be swung or bounced on their parent’s knee or hug.
13. Missing developmental milestone
If your baby doesn’t reach developmental milestones for his age on time, it could be a sign of autism.
14. Sensitive to sound
Sensitivity to sound is a common symptom of children on the autism spectrum. They may tend to cry nonstop if overwhelmed by noise. Older kids cover their ears to block the noise.
15. Moments of stress
If you notice that the intensity of any repetitive behaviors (head shaking, headbanging) increases during the moment of stress, it could be a sign of autism.
Let’s watch Hanen Speech-Language Pathologist, Fay McGill talks about some of the traits or behaviors you might see in baby on the autism spectrum.
If your child is not showing any other sign listed above along with head shaking, there is no reason to worry about it.
It is wise to bring up any concern you have about your child’s behavior to health care professionals, they will guide you in the right directions and ease your worries. Also, check out these Autism resources to support your need.
How to Stop Babies from shaking their head
Shaking the head can be potentially harmful as it may cause dizziness in children leading to falls or they can accidentally hit their head on the crib or wall.
Here’s what you can do to stop babies from shaking their heads,
Pay no attention
Reacting to head shaking such as laughing, taking pictures, or telling them to stop, may cause them to do it more to get your attention. So, do not react when they shake their head.
Monitor their action
Monitor frequency, duration, and when your baby shakes her head. It may help you figure out the reason, and you can take an action. For instance, if your baby shakes her head when she is hungry, feed them before they get anxious.
If you notice that your baby is shaking head due to environmental triggers such as loud noise, take them to a quiet and stress-free environment.
Gently massage your baby with baby oil to relax your baby’s muscles and to calm them. Make it a routine. Regular massages during the first few months of life not only help them relax but also helps them bond with you.
When to contact your doctor for head shaking?
If the head shaking is frequent along with other signs as listed above, consult your pediatrician.
Are you OK now, mama!
Unless your baby is showing any other symptoms listed above, head shaking is normal in babies.
Head shaking is normal during the first few months of life as babies are learning to control their bodies. As neck muscles strengthen, head shaking stops.
Also remember that babies shake their heads when they are excited, and sometimes it’s their way of getting your attention.
If your baby shakes her head during playtime or nursing or sleeping, you shouldn’t worry about it. But if shaking if frequent and last longer then you need to consider talking to your pediatrician.
Let’s go back to the 7-month-old daughter of my friend’s story… Turns out that she picked up the head-shaking skill from her dad. And it seems that she is very proud of her new skill and keeps repeating it to get attention. She is a happy, healthy child and growing beautifully each day, love you!!
How about you?
Do you have a personal experience to share with us? Is there anything that you want to know more about? Leave your comment below.
Evidence-based milestone ages as a framework for developmental surveillance. Paediatr Child Health. 2012;17(10):561-8.
Johnson CP, & Myers SM; American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children with Disabilities. (2007). Identification and evaluation of children with autism spectrum disorders. Pediatrics, 120(5), 1183-1215.
CDC. Autism Spectrum Disorders—Signs & Symptoms. (2015). Retrieved January 10, 2017, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/signs.html.
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