Why Is My Baby Shaking Their Head?

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on March 10, 2016Written by Kristeen Cherney on March 10, 2016
Baby Shakes Head

Over the course of their first year of life, your baby will reach various milestones related to reflexes and motor skills.

When a baby starts shaking their head, you may be concerned that something is wrong. You might even wonder if your baby is too young to be shaking their head. Some cases of head shaking are related to neurological or developmental disorders. However, the majority of cases are normal.

Learn why your baby shakes their head and the types of scenarios you should be worried about.

Understanding Baby’s Motor Skills

As a parent, it’s normal to experience protective instincts. After all, your newborn is delicate and unable to defend themselves. Still, this doesn’t mean that your baby can’t move on their own. According to the March of Dimes, by the end of the first month of life, babies have the ability to move their heads from side to side. This most often occurs when they lie on their sides.

After the first month, head shaking in babies is most often accompanied by playfulness as well as other forms of interaction. Babies who develop “normally” will be able to shake their heads “yes” or “no” by their first year.

During the first few weeks of life, your baby’s movements might be more “jerky” as they develop muscle control.

Shaking Head When Nursing

One of the first times babies shake their heads is when they nurse from their mothers. This may first occur out of your baby’s attempt to try to latch. As your baby gets the hang of latching on, the shaking may then be a result of excitement.

While your baby might be gaining neck muscles and is able to shake side to side when nursing, you should still support their head for at least the first three months. You may also find feeding times to be more successful by calming down your newborn’s reflexes so they can latch on more easily.

Shaking Head When Playing

Beyond the first month, babies might start shaking their heads while playing. In some cases, they might even move their heads around when resting on their tummies or their backs. You may notice that head shaking increases when your baby gets excited.

As your baby grows, they will start to notice behaviors of others and try to interact with them. If you have other children at home, your baby might start to imitate their behaviors through head and hand gestures.

Testing Movement

Babies are extremely brave, and they will start to test how much they can move. At around the 4- or 5-month mark, some babies will start rocking their heads. This may move onto rocking the whole body.

While the rocking movements can look scary, it’s considered normal behavior in most babies. In fact, it’s often a precursor to your baby figuring out how to sit up on their own. Rocking and shaking behaviors usually last for no longer than 15 minutes in this age group.

Another cause of worry in many parents is head banging. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this practice is more common in boys. It also starts around 6 months of age. As long as the banging is not hard and your baby seems happy, most pediatricians don’t worry about this behavior. Head banging usually stops by the 2-year mark.

When to Worry

Head shaking and other related behaviors are often considered a normal part of a baby’s development. However, there are instances in which the behaviors might extend beyond simple shaking. Call your pediatrician if your baby:

  • doesn’t interact with you or their siblings
  • doesn’t move their eyes normally
  • develops knots or bald spots from head banging
  • 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

The Takeaway

While head shaking is not usually a cause for concern, there are some instances in which you should consider talking to your pediatrician.

Frequency is often a telltale sign of whether the shaking is normal or not. If you find that your baby shakes their head a little during feedings or playtime, this is likely not a medical emergency. On the other hand, if the head shaking is frequent and lasts for a long time, you should see a doctor right away.

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