Head Banging and Body Rocking

Baby shaking head side to side, body rocking and other similar movements are ways that children soothe themselves. As a parent, it can be worrisome when your child engages in these movements. But these behaviors usually aren’t harmful unless they cause injury or sleep disturbances.


Why is my baby shaking their head from side to side?

Is your baby shaking their head from side to side? Banging their head onto their pillow? Rocking back and forth? These behaviors can be worrisome, especially if you’re a new parent. But head banging, body rocking and similar behaviors are normal in babies and toddlers, particularly during naps or at nighttime.

These behaviors only become an issue if they result in injury or disrupt your child’s sleep. When they cause complications, healthcare providers call these behaviors rhythmic movement disorders (RMD).

Types of rhythmic movements

Babies and toddlers exhibit rhythmic movements in a few different ways. The most common types include:

  • Head banging.
  • Body rocking.
  • Head rolling or shaking side to side.

Less common types include:

  • Body rolling.
  • Leg rolling (rhythmically moving legs back and forth).
  • Leg banging.

How common are rhythmic movements?

Rhythmic movements are very common among healthy babies and toddlers. Up to 60% of babies exhibit symptoms by the time they’re 9 months old.

These movements tend to occur at the same rate regardless of sex and may run in families with a history of RMDs.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are symptoms of rhythmic movement disorders?

Children who don’t have rhythmic movement disorders can still show the same movements as those who do. Providers don’t consider the movements themselves a disorder unless they disrupt your child’s sleep, cause injuries or make it hard for them to focus on tasks.

Babies and toddlers who exhibit rhythmic movements may:

  • Rock their entire body in a rhythmic manner.
  • Rock a part of their body, like their head, arm, leg or hand.
  • Roll their head from side to side.
  • Shake their head from side to side.
  • Bang their head on their pillow or mattress.
  • Hum or make sounds (most common in children with RMD).

What causes rhythmic movement disorders?

Researchers are still learning why many children exhibit rhythmic movements. The most common theory is that these are self-soothing behaviors that help your child relax and fall asleep. Your child may find these movements comforting because they mimic the feeling of a caregiver holding or rocking them.

Other researchers think these rhythmic movements happen because your child’s nervous system hasn’t fully developed. As a result, they can’t control motor functions while they sleep.

Conditions related to rhythmic movement disorders

If your child shows symptoms of rhythmic movements, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. In most cases, these behaviors are a normal part of development. But in some cases, rhythmic movements may occur alongside other conditions, including:

In most cases, children who make rhythmic movements have no other developmental or cognitive conditions. If you’re not sure whether your baby’s rhythmic movements are typical for their age, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician. They can help you find the answers you need.


Diagnosis and Tests

How do healthcare providers diagnose head shaking, body rocking and other rhythmic movements?

A pediatrician can talk with you to get a more detailed sleep history. They may also run tests to rule out other conditions, like:

Possible diagnostic tests may include:

Management and Treatment

How do healthcare providers treat head shaking and body rocking?

Most children who exhibit rhythmic movements don’t require treatment.

If your child receives an RMD diagnosis and is at risk for injury, your pediatrician may recommend:

  • A protective helmet for your child to wear during sleep.
  • Placing your child’s mattress on the floor or moving their bed away from the wall.

If your child has severe symptoms, your pediatrician might recommend other ways to help them.



How can I keep my baby or toddler from shaking their head from side to side or rocking back and forth?

Unless your child is harming themselves, there’s no need to do anything. But if your child exhibits severe symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider about the options mentioned above.

Outlook / Prognosis

How long do rhythmic movement disorders last?

These behaviors typically subside by age 2 or 3. By age 5, only 5% of children who don’t have underlying conditions exhibit rhythmic movements.

What’s the outlook for babies and toddlers with rhythmic movements?

Rhythmic movements usually go away on their own when your baby or toddler reaches early childhood. Adolescents and adults rarely have these symptoms.

In most cases, rhythmic movements are just a normal part of development. Babies and toddlers who have RMD generally grow out of it and go on to live perfectly healthy lives.

Living With

Should I worry if my baby shakes their head side to side or rocks back and forth?

In most cases, head shaking and body rocking are normal movements and nothing to worry about. But you should schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician if:

  • Your child exhibits these behaviors during the daytime.
  • Your child has symptoms of infection or injury, like fever, rash, bruises or scrapes.
  • Your child injures themselves or you fear an injury could occur.
  • You notice severe snoring, sleep apnea symptoms or consistent disruption in your baby’s sleep.
  • Your baby’s symptoms get worse when they’re irritable or stressed.
  • Your child seems sluggish or has difficulty waking up.
  • Your child has difficulty making eye contact with you.
  • You notice developmental delays like muscle stiffness, poor head and neck control or difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).
  • You worry your child may be having seizures.

Additional Common Questions

Why do babies shake their head side to side?

Most of the time, babies who shake their heads from side to side are trying to self-soothe. It’s normal for them to do this when they’re trying to fall asleep.

Why do kids rock back and forth?

Rhythmic rocking is a self-soothing behavior that comforts children and helps them feel calm — especially during naps or at nighttime.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

As a parent, it can be unsettling to watch your child shake their head or rock back and forth. But in most cases, these behaviors are harmless. Most likely, your child isn’t in distress — they’re just self-soothing. But if you witness worrisome behaviors, talk to your pediatrician. They can tell you whether your child needs further evaluation.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/26/2023.

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