Parents tend to be observant of their little ones, watching as they grow and hit developmental milestones with fascination—all of the expressions on their tiny faces, the coos, the different types of cries, everything. Some parents, in their observation, notice that sometimes their little one does some head shaking.
Like many things with newborns and infants, there are many reasons for a baby shaking head side to side. Most of them are not cause for much concern. Babies shake their heads while learning muscle control, rooting for food, and many other reasons. Sometimes, though, baby head shaking can be a concern when accompanied by other signs and symptoms. It could be as simple as an ear infection that needs treatment or more serious neurological disorders that require immediate attention.
This article will help you understand why your baby shakes their head and give you a good starting point for further investigation. Remember that as a parent, you know your baby better than anyone, and if you think something is off when it comes to the way your baby is shaking their head, it does not hurt to be on the safe side and have a pediatrician take a look.
Baby Shaking Head Side to Side
The direction the baby shakes his or her head matters when it comes to figuring out whether you need to be concerned. A baby shakes their head for many reasons, but the movement is typically from side to side. Twitching, flopping, or total loss of control of the baby’s muscles is a sign of distress or concern and should be checked out by a doctor. The following, however, are some reasons why your baby may be shaking their head side to side.
During activities like play and tummy time, a baby’s head shaking from side to side is typically nothing short of trying to direct their muscles to look at something specific or engage in play.
When a baby is on their tummy and wants to look straight ahead or up, they may lift their head and try to hold it steady. Due to poor muscle control at a young age, a baby’s head is shaky, and they begin shaking their head as an alternative to keeping it stationary. Most babies do this during the tummy and playtimes, and it is nothing to worry about.
2. Learning Muscle Control
Baby shakes, in general, when trying to command their muscles. They shake their head rather than holds it steady because a baby’s head weighs a lot, and their neck muscles are not yet developed enough to sustain the weight and control the movement.
As the muscles in the neck strengthen, your baby shaking their head will decrease in frequency and be replaced with a steady and solid ability to control their head and look in whatever direction they want to. Motor skills will continue to develop, and before you know it, those developmental milestones will occur, and the baby will be in control of all of their body. Then it is anyone’s game. Good luck in keeping up.
3. Baby Shaking Head to Fall Asleep
As a self-soothing measure, many babies shake their heads. It simulates rocking, and it helps the baby relax and wind down for sleep. It is normal behavior. It is a self-comfort and self-soothing measure, like thumb sucking, hair twirling, or using a pacifier.
4. Baby Shaking Head While Nursing
A hungry baby will often start shaking their head, doing what is called rooting. This is where they will thrash their head from side to side, trying to find a nipple, either from a bottle or breast, to eat. This can be particularly frustrating and sometimes messy for parents. When a baby starts to shake their head, it can be challenging to get them to latch. Head shaking can also be a sign of trouble latching in a breastfed baby.
When you notice the shaking head, it is often a sign of frustration. It just means that your infant is hungry, cannot latch correctly, and lacks the motor skills to manipulate his head and neck to get the proper latch.
Baby cannot talk yet, so sometimes they engage in head-shaking to get your attention and let you know that they want to eat, play, sleep, or be held. Learning your child’s cues is essential so that you can start to interpret what these movements mean and what your infant is trying to communicate to you.
More Serious Issues
When the head shake involves more than just side-to-side movement or is accompanied by other symptoms, it could signify something more serious is going on. A baby shaking his head even after being fed is not tired and is not communicating something specific to you may have underlying problems and may be unable to stop head shaking. The following are some issues that require attention from a doctor or specialist.
1. Ear Infections
An ear infection is a miserable predicament for a baby. They cannot tell you that they do not feel well, and the pain in the ear and head caused by an ear infection can cause them to shake their head to escape and cope with the pain.
Other signs of an ear infection include fever, loss of appetite, ear tugging, and trouble sleeping. Your child’s doctor can confirm ear infections easily by simply looking into your baby’s ears. You and your baby can get relief with a diagnosis and medicine to help get your little one back to normalcy and happiness.
2. Brain Infection
When a baby is shaking their head and seems to be in pain, often accompanied by a stiff neck, this is cause for worry. While it is not always the case, these symptoms can be signs of brain infection in a little one. If your baby starts to exhibit these symptoms, it is best to contact your doctor or the hospital to get the best care as quickly as possible. Remember to stay calm to create a calm environment for your baby. A terrified mom creates a tense atmosphere for the baby, which helps no one.
3. Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism is not a one size fits all disorder. There is an entire spectrum, and the level of treatment for someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder depends mainly on how early interventions can begin. Autism usually involves much more than head shaking. The following are other major signs that your child may need to be tested or evaluated for autism.
1. Lack of Eye Contact
When your child does not make or maintain eye contact, even when you say their name, it is cause for concern. Many children on the spectrum will look down when spoken to or look in a totally different direction when addressed. Eye contact is difficult to judge if your child is still an infant or a toddler, but if this is accompanied by head-shaking, the parent should note it if it occurs regularly.
2. Behind in Fine and Gross Motor Skills
Gross motor skills refer to larger muscle groups, such as the ability to walk and balance. A child may not reach a normal developmental milestone for a two-year-old child with autism until six to twelve months later than usual. While these children develop motor skills, they often come later and are less refined. For example, a toddler with autism may learn to walk late but still have a clumsy gait or stagger for a long time after learning to walk.
3. Head Banging
When a baby bangs their head rather than shaking it, it may be a cause of concern for a neurological disorder and the possibility of injury or head trauma due to hitting the head. Along with tics and posturing, this behavior is often not very voluntary. They are responses to stimuli that the child cannot correctly process. A baby’s attempt to cope with these stimuli may be to hit his head a few times on whatever surface is nearest to him. This is one of the major signs of autism.
Other Symptoms of Autism in a Toddler
The following are some additional signs to watch out for when you suspect that your infant or toddler may be on the spectrum of autism:
- Baby’s movements are jerky and sporadic
- Delayed speech production
- Developmental delays
- Repeated movement (Tics)
- Misses other developmental milestones
- Poor social interactions
- Inability to self soothe
- Repetitive behaviors
4. Rhythmic Movement Disorder (RMD)
Most children have a night or two of restless sleep now and then. However, if your child often experiences head-shaking, headbanging, constant shaking while sleeping, or body rolling, there is a good chance that your baby exhibits signs of RMD. As insomnia disorder, RMD presents as unusual behavior, especially when sleeping. Jerky movements that may look like seizures, baby shaking their head, and body rolling keep your child from getting good sleep.
While other infants may have their nights of restlessness, repetitive behaviors that go on night after night showcase this. You may notice that a baby starts to develop an unusual gaze when tired or unable to stop shaking when falling asleep. When a baby shakes his head, it is often hard to wake him up.
There is no actual test to diagnose RMD, but there is a list of criteria that a baby must meet to be diagnosed with RMD. There are treatments available to help. Without intervention and treatment, your child will not get the sleep they need and may start to miss developmental milestones outlined by your pediatrician. They may also begin to exhibit other issues.
When in Doubt, Get it Checked Out
If your baby shaking her head from side to side is causing you concern, and no amount of soothing, baby massage or other safe home remedies are helping to deter the behavior, it may be best to have your child seen by a doctor. While head shaking in an infant, especially in the first few weeks of life, is normal when they are still learning head and neck control, any concerns regarding your child are valid. You should feel confident and safe addressing the issue with your pediatrician.