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Q: My son is seven years old. Since he was nine months old he has been banging his head. He only does it now in his sleep. It is so loud that it can wake me up. He is normal and bright in every way. What can I do to stop this?
A: I am assuming that, if your son has been head banging for virtually all his life, you have discussed this chronic behavior with his doctor(s) through the years and that this behavior has been monitored closely to protect him from any harm.
I cannot speculate about the causes for his long history of head banging without much more information. What I can tell you is that if he were presently seen by medical professionals for this sleep-time head banging and these professionals knew nothing about his long history of head banging, they would probably suggest that he was experiencing rhythmic movement disorder (RMD). This disorder refers to a group of movements that usually occur at the beginning or end of sleep. These movements include head banging, body rocking, and headlong. Head banging is the most prominent movement in this disorder, sometimes occurring as violent front-to-back movements. In children, head banging is usually done into the pillow but it may also be done against the wall.
RMD usually first shows itself within the child's initial 9 months of life and decreases as the child ages. It's rare that it is still in evidence during adolescence or adulthood. RMD episodes can last from minutes to several hours. Kids don't usually injure themselves with RMD, although soft-tissue injury to the eyes and forehead of head banging mentally retarded children has been reported. On occasion, head banging may be the only observable symptom of a seizure disorder. Sometimes if RMD occurs when the child is awake in bed, you can reduce it by cutting back on the time the child spends in bed. In very serious, stubborn cases, there are behavioral techniques that can help as well as the very selective use of a group of drugs called benzodiazepines.
Ruth, it would be great if you took your boy to a specialist, preferably a pediatric neurologist or a doctor who treats childhood sleep problems. I know that once these doctors heard your son's history, and maybe even observed his head banging in a sleep laboratory, they could help him (and you) have a more peaceful sleep. Keep me posted as to his progress if you can.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.