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Why Babies Shake Their Heads Back & Forth, According To Experts

Babies have to get their wiggles out, just like everyone else.

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Newborn babies do a lot of things that seem like a complete mystery to adults but are actually very intentional. From making strange grunting sounds, to being very upset by just a little bit of gas, they really keep new parents on their toes. If your baby has a tendency to shake their head back and forth while sitting up or during tummy time, you may be curious why they’re doing that. Truly, what does it all mean? The reason is more relatable than you probably realize.

A practical reason why babies shake their heads back and forth

At first glance, it may seem like your baby has already mastered the art of defiantly telling you “no.” Don't worry, you still have a little bit of time before that starts happening because this behavior isn't about communicating, it's about moving and having fun. “We usually see head shaking side to side when a baby is seeking movement sensation,” Duke University Health's pediatric occupational therapist Lilie Bonzani and occupational therapist Mary Hart Macleod, tell Romper. They say that this head shaking behavior “may be seen when the baby is tired or irritable or in need of stimulation” of some kind.

A sweet reason why babies shake their heads back & forth

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Another reason they may be shaking their head? For fun. “This sort of imitative or stimulative head shaking is normal, and often you’ll see your infant smiling or laughing to indicate they’re enjoying it,” pediatrician David L. Hill, explains. This back-and-forth with you is a lot of fun for your baby, because it's also a new way of communicating and interacting with you. “You’ve been in constant communication since birth,” says Hill, “but this is one of the most obvious signs that yes, you’re playing together.”

Once babies start crawling, they are able to expel energy that way, so it's less likely their head shaking is about moving explains Bonzani. However, babies start to crawl around 9 months of age, which is about the time Hill says imitation play starts to ramp up. So, your baby will continue to shake its head, but the purpose behind it will change.

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When to contact the doctor

Of course, there are caveats to this behavior. When head shaking is seen in combination with other developmental concerns such as gross motor delays, challenges with sleep, poor feeding development and behavior, both Bonzani and Macleod agree that it's a good idea to talk to your pediatrician to see if they recommend any monitoring or intervention with an occupational therapist.

Additionally, a shaking head can signal something larger. “A very different sort of [head shaking] movement can indicate a seizure, where the infant turns their head to one side or starts jerking uncontrollably,” ” explains Hill. In this case, seek urgent medical attention.

Still, generally speaking, if your baby is shaking its head from side to side, it's perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about.


Lilie L. Bonzani, OTR/L, Pediatric Occupational Therapist at Duke Unversity Health

Mary Hart Macleod, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist at Duke University Health

David L. Hill, M.D., FAAP, Spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics & Author of Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce: Putting Your Children First

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