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Q: I have a five-year-old who will rock late at night on top of his head; just above the forehead. He practically burns his hair off. It even smells burned. Why does he do it and when should it have stopped? He's been doing it since he's been old enough to get on his hands and knees.
A: Believe it or not, rocking and head banging are not uncommon events in childhood. Some estimates have said that five to ten percent of children do this. There is no specific association of rocking or head banging with any later abnormalities or problems in children who are developmentally normal. (Only children with severe developmental problems, such as mental retardation and autism, have a higher rate of rocking and head banging that persists when they are older.)
Most children who rock or head bang started between six and twelve months of age. It often consists of rocking on the hands and knees and potentially banging the head against the side of the crib. Some children do this to soothe themselves and some children do this, particularly at bed time, as part of a ritual that helps them fall asleep.
Most children do stop this activity spontaneously between three and four years of age, however there are some children who continue to do it through five or six. If it persists longer than this, it would be reasonable to evaluate it further and find out if there are any other psychological stresses that may be contributing to the symptoms. I would recommend that you see if you can encourage him to develop another bed routine. If you continue to have difficulty with it, I would recommend talking to your pediatrician.
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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.