You might be worried that your baby’s head shaking side to side means that something is wrong. You may even be worried this is an early sign of autism. But chances are this is a normal behaviour. If your baby is crying and head shaking many parents become concerned that their baby is sick, hurt, or autistic. But there are lots of good reasons your baby might shake their head from side to side. Even if your baby is crying, it is most likely nothing to worry about.
Does your baby shake their head from side to side while they are breastfeeding?
This is a common time to see a baby shake their head, sometimes they will also grunt and fret. This is the baby trying to latch and find the best position to feed. By moving their head side to side they can ensure they latch onto the nipple correctly. You can help them by encouraging them into the right position and by assisting them to attach well. A very hungry baby will often shake their head a lot while latching in their eagerness and frustration that the milk isn’t flowing yet. Very normal and nothing to worry about!
Does your baby shake their head from side to side while they are trying to go to sleep, or when you notice they are very tired?
Even very young babies can have self settling skills and this may be one of them. The shaking of the head may make baby slightly dizzy and help them fall asleep. It may feel comforting to feel the material rub against their cheeks. It may also be a sign of frustration that they cannot relax and fall asleep as they would like, especially if they are also crying. Very normal and nothing to worry about!
Does your baby sometimes shake their head from side to side when they are playing, or when they are interacting with you?
It’s fun to move your body isn’t it? Your baby doesn’t have a lot of control over their body so when they are having fun they may shake their head with excitement. They are practising new skills all the time and are testing out what their body can do – look I can turn my head to one side, and now I can turn it to the other side! You might notice this during tummy time in particular. If you are turning your head while playing with them they may try to imitate you, the earliest way they know how to communicate with you and join in with your activities. Very normal and nothing to worry about!
What if something is actually wrong?
There are a few reasons why a baby turning their head from side to side may be a cause for concern.
- Ear Infection or other illness
- Febrile Seizure
- Rash/ itch
If your baby has an EAR INFECTION they may find the sensation of a blocked ear canal very uncomfortable. They may turn their head from side to side in an attempt to relieve the pressure or pain. If they feel unwell in general they may turn their head in frustration. If head turning is accompanied by a fever, fluid weeping from the ears, or any other concerning symptoms you might suspect an ear infection and should visit a doctor.
Sometimes if your baby has a sudden rise in temperature they may experience a FEBRILE SEIZURE or convulsion. While this is not uncommon or life threatening it can be very scary. In this instance your baby would not just shake their head, their entire body would go stiff and jerk and they may lose consciousness. Don’t panic! These kinds of seizures are not harmful and do not cause brain damage. Keep them on a soft surface and wait until it’s finished then seek medical attention from your GP or hospital to confirm your child is well and safe and to identify any underlying illness.
You may have noticed any redness or dryness or a rash on your baby, especially on their face, they may be turning their head from side to side in an attempt to itch. Young babies with limited control over their arms and hands will be particularly vulnerable to an itch they cannot scratch.Babies with parents who have ECZEMA or asthma or other allergies are more likely to have eczema and itchy skin themselves. Keep baby’s skin moisturised and watch for irritation. If you see a spreading rash take your baby to the doctor to rule out any illnesses.
When you see your baby shaking their head from side to side you may think of stimming and other repetitive behaviours that you’ve heard are sign of AUTISM. Head shaking on its own, however, is not usually a sign your child is autistic. So long as your child makes eye contact with you, smiles (if they are older than about 8 weeks), makes gestures such as pointing or waving and imitates you (if they are older than about 9 months) it is unlikely they are autistic and more likely they are displaying one of the very normal head shaking behaviours. If you are concerned your baby’s head shaking from side to side is excessive and/or you feel they are not meeting other milestones and not engaging with you by making eye contact, smiling or gesturing then you are wise to seek the advice of your doctor. Early diagnosis of autism is becoming more possible and early intervention can help an autistic child to thrive.
so….. should you be worried?
A baby shaking their head from side to is very normal and common. It’s usually a way for them to share something with you, to let you know they are hungry or tired or happy and excited. It is often fun for them and interesting to experiment with their bodies. It may be a way for them to tell you when they are uncomfortable and to try and communicate with you. Babies turn their heads from side to side for lots of reasons and most of the time it is nothing to worry about at all!