Skip to main content

Concerned about head-shaking child behavior? Here’s what you need to know

Notice unusual head shaking with your little one? See if you should be concerned

A baby on their stomach holding themselves up.
Dragon Images / Shutterstock

Sometimes babies exhibit behavior that causes parents concern. If you’ve noticed your child is shaking their head more than you think is typical behavior, your first reaction might be to worry. That’s a perfectly understandable instinct when your baby does something that seems a bit unusual. But how do you know if this is uncommon and how worried should you be about head-shaking child behavior?

We’ve compiled a variety of information about head-shaking behavior to help ease your mind and let you know when head-shaking child behavior is normal or if you should be concerned. We look into what causes a child’s head shaking, and what to do about it. It all depends on your child’s age, as well as other symptoms and factors, and we’ll break it all down for you.

A mother looking in on her sleeping baby.
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

When head shaking is normal in babies and toddlers

Head shaking is a normal part of a baby’s behavior and development. Even as newborns, babies move their heads side to side and “root” for milk. As they grow, they will explore movement and their range of vision by turning their head from side to side.

Under 2 years of age is when you’ll notice this behavior. Whether trying to find food, trying to find where that noise is coming from, or trying to find your face because they hear your voice, a baby has a lot of reasons to do a bit of head shaking.

Dad holding baby in the nursery.
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

The meaning behind head-shaking behavior

In babies, a shaking head has many potential reasons. They may be self-soothing or developing their neck muscles. If they’re trying to hold up their head, it shakes because their muscles aren’t strong enough to hold their head steady or they’re shaking their head to strengthen their muscles.

In older babies and young children, a shaking head could be a tremor or a tic. Several conditions can cause tremors or tics and would likely accompany other symptoms. While some conditions are serious and rare, a tic disorder is fairly common in children and is treated by a general pediatrician. Most of the time, the tics resolve and subside on their own. You should see a pediatrician to talk about your concerns.

Neurological problems like rhombencephalonsynapsis also cause persistent side-to-side head shaking. If your baby or child seems unable to control other parts of their body besides their head, that could be a sign of an issue that isn’t part of typical development.

A baby playing with the mobile above their crib
wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

Additional behaviors with head shaking to look out for

If you only notice head shaking with your little one, that should be fine. But there are other behaviors, which when coupled with head shaking, could mean there’s something else going on.

Check if your child also has these symptoms

  • A cold
  • Tugging at their ear
  • A fever
  • Refusing to eat
  • If they are lethargic

Other behaviors to look for

  • Lowered or sudden poor interaction with others
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Head shaking over 2 years of age

Sometimes a baby’s shaking head may happen because of a medical issue. This could range from pain like an ear infection to a neurological issue like epilepsy.

As they get older, toddlers might shake their heads out of excitement at times, but there is no reason to do so like there is for babies. Talk to your pediatrician if your child is shaking their head past the age of 2. It’s not part of typical development for a toddler or child over the age of 2 to repeatedly shake their head back and forth. It could be a self-soothing behavior, but you should check in with a doctor to find out the cause.

Mother holding sleeping baby.
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

If and when to worry about your baby’s head shaking

It is usually normal for babies to shake their heads from side to side. However, always reach out to your doctor if you’re concerned or have questions. If your baby is showing any other symptoms in addition to head shaking, get in touch for a professional opinion.

Seek medical attention if your baby starts to seem limp or if their whole body is shaking. Head banging could be normal but should stop by age 2, just like head shaking.

Head shaking is one potential sign of autism, if combined with other signs, but on its own, it isn’t a clear cause to think your child is on the spectrum. Not meeting other milestones, not understanding social cues, and other major markers are more likely to clue you into autism than only head shaking.

A baby looking up over their shoulder while on a play mat.
SergeBertasiusPhotography / Shutterstock

What to do about a child’s head shaking

You don’t need to do anything about your baby’s shaking head if there are no accompanying issues (other body parts shaking, for example). However, any time you’re concerned, have questions or have an off feeling, give the pediatrician a call. If your child who is over 2 years old is shaking their head, you should talk to a pediatrician. If the shaking comes on suddenly and seems like a seizure, go to the hospital.

Female pediatrician examines a baby
Evgeny Atamanenko / Shutterstock

When to call the pediatrician

Although head shaking is common child behavior, there are related behaviors to look for that could indicate a greater issue. According to Healthline, call your doctor if your baby;

  • Doesn’t interact with you or their siblings
  • Doesn’t move their eyes normally
  • Develops knots or bald spots from banging their head
  • Shaking increases during moments of anxiety
  • Seems like they want to hurt themselves
  • Fails to reach other developmental milestones outlined by your doctor
  • Doesn’t respond to your voice, as well as other sounds
  • Continues these behaviors beyond 2 years of age

They also suggest frequency as an indicator of whether your child’s head-shaking behavior is something to worry about or not. If you notice them shaking their head during a feeding, while falling asleep or playing, it may not be anything to worry about. If you notice the head shaking is happening more often and lasting for longer periods of time, contact your doctor.

If you are a first-time parent, every little thing seems like a huge deal. We understand that. It’s completely natural to wonder if this movement or that noise is normal or something you should be worried about. Head-shaking child behavior is definitely one that would cause concern over others.

Trust those parental instincts, but know it’s never too much if you want to call the pediatrician. Head shaking is one of many quirky things you’ll see your nugget do. Parenting is hard work, with lots of unknowns, so take it one day at a time and you’ll do great.

Editors' Recommendations

Sarah Prager
Sarah is a writer and mom who lives in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National…
7 signs of parentification: The behavior all parents need to avoid
Why parentification occurs and the warning signs
Teenage girl holding baby sibling

You may not be familiar with the term "parentification," but you're probably familiar with the concept. In typical families, it's the parents who are the caregivers for children of all ages, but in some families, the responsibility of caring for younger siblings may sometimes fall on the shoulders of older siblings. This is known as parentification, and here are some examples of behavior all parents need to avoid.

What is parentification?
Parentification is when a child, typically a teen, has to assume roles in the family that the parents would typically assume. "Parentification occurs when parents look to their children for emotional and/or practical support, rather than providing it," Newport Academy states, adding that, "Hence, the child becomes the caregiver." Not only do older children have to assume these responsibilities before they're even prepared to do so, but the parents often don't acknowledge this is happening.

Read more
When babies get their first haircut: Everything you need to know to get through this milestone without tears
Here's when babies should get their new look
Baby getting a haircut.

The first year of your child's life is filled with exciting milestone moments, like their first smile, learning how to crawl, and taking their first step. For most parents, that first snip of hair is another milestone that is just as celebratory and emotional. The notion of cutting your baby's hair for the first time could bring parents and baby to tears.

Whether you choose to trim your baby's hair yourself or take them to a trusted professional, you may wonder when baby gets their first haircut. If you think your little one is ready for their first styling, we have tricks and tips to help make the experience enjoyable for everyone — with limited tears involved.

Read more
Concerned with baby scratching their nose? This is what it might mean
Here's when a baby scratching their nose is normal
A little child holding a tissue in their hand and crinkling their face up.

Watching your child discover new things is always exciting, especially once they find their hands. At this point, you may find that they are obsessed with touching anything and everything. Among their exploring, you may have noticed your baby scratching their nose more than normal. At first, it seemed like it was only an itch, but now your little one is constantly touching their nose. Is this another quirky baby stage to get through, or something more concerning?

If you have seen your tot grabbing at their nose and getting whiny, there are a few things to check out and then try to get them back to a happy baby. An itchy nose outside could mean something needs a deeper look inside. Let's see what your baby's extra interest in their nose could really be about.

Read more