Baby Moving Head Side To Side Rapidly: Is It Autism?

No matter how prepared you are as a new mom, your baby will do things you haven’t read up on. In those moments, the first thing you’ll wonder is: is this normal? The answer is always: it depends.

If you’ve noticed your newborn (age 0-6 months) shaking his or her head from side to side, of course you’re wondering whether you should be worried or not.

There are many expected reasons your infant could be doing this. There are also some other less common reasons this could be happening, but only consider those if accompanied by the other signs listed in this article.

When Is It Normal For Babies To Be Shaking Their Head Side To Side?

It’s normal for all babies to shake their heads from side to side after 1 month of age. In fact, if you never see your child doing this, that’s more reason for concern.

The AAP mentions the “head movement” behavior as appearing by 1 month of age.

1) When Testing Their Movement

Have you ever heard a friend refer to a newborn as having a “bobble-head?” It’s exactly right.

Your child is learning how to get control of their body.

Their neck isn’t very strong those first few months, so the weight of their head isn’t easy to support, hence, “the bobble head” reference.

Around 4 and 5 months, your child will begin to really test his or her movement. If you have a song playing in your car and notice your child begin to shake, it’s normal (as long as it doesn’t last more than 15 minutes.)

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “To help parents determine whether or not an infant’s shaking or movement is concerning or not, I recommend a simple test.

If they can put their hand on the area that is shaking and the movement stops, the movements are not a seizure or sign of a neurological problem.”

2) During Playtime

As your baby starts to spend time playing on their stomach, you might notice the shaking intensify.

That’s just them building strength.

There’s going to be some wobbling, especially when they’re trying to focus on a toy.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “Often, infants and toddlers will clench their fists and do a quick full body shake, with or without vocalizations, when excited or very happy during play.

I reassure parents that this is a normal expression and not a seizure.”

3) During Naptime

Your baby might just be tried.

It’s common for an infant to shake their head as means to self-soothe and get themselves ready to fall asleep.

4) When They’re Excited

As they get older (around 7 months) and start to flash those big smiles your way, they might shake their head from side to side out of excitement.

5) While Breastfeeding

If you’re breastfeeding, it’s really common for your baby to shake their head from side to side while trying to latch, or in protest when feeling full.

6) Ear Infection

Unusual head shaking could also just be a sign for possible ear infection in your baby, with all they’re trying to do is get comfortable by shaking the pain away.

This is most likely the case if you notice they’re showing other symptoms at the same time such as cold, high temperature and decreased overall activity.

If you notice any of these signs in your baby, or any other unusual signals/behavior that could indicate that an ear infection is present, contact your doctor straight away.

What could be a very simple issue might evolve into something very serious if neglected and not addressed in due time.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “A most common form of ‘head side to side movement’ that I see in clinical practice is among older infants.

They seem to have begun to understand that shaking the head side to side means “no” when they see other people do it.

I’ve had many babies who have begun to exhibit stranger anxiety shake their head ‘no’ to me while I am examining them.”

What Isn’t Normal?

If your 0-6 month old is shaking their head from side to side, even often, you shouldn’t necessarily panic right away.

As you’ve already read, it’s quite common.

But if the shaking persists or intensifies and is coupled by one or more of these issues in the following list, this suggests there’s a deeper problem that should be looked into by a professional.

– If the head shaking is random and there is little to no interaction between you and your child

– If there’s ear or throat pain. (Head shaking is a common thing for babies to do to relieve inner ear pressure.)

– If the head shaking gets worse in high stress or high anxiety situations

– If your child isn’t reaching the developmental milestones listed by your pediatrician

– If your child isn’t responding to your voice or other sounds (which could indicate a hearing problem or an autism spectrum disorder.)

– If your child continues to do this beyond the age of 2 years old (especially if you also notice a delay in other developmental milestones being reached at the same time)

If you’re interested in reading up more about this, the AAP has some great articles that distinguish normal movements from abnormal ones based on developmental age:

For 0-3 months:

For 4-7 months:

For 8-12 months:

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “It is also important to include a section about seizures because this is a phenomenon that parents are concerned about and of which they should know some key signs.

It is more common for “strange” head movements to be a sign of a seizure than a sign of autism.

The Epilepsy Foundation has some informative pages regarding seizures in newborns and older infants. You can check them out here (resource 1) and here (resource 2).”

How Can I Know If This Is Related To Autism?

Don’t scream “autism!” just yet.

If your child is struggling with a spectrum disorder, then these other symptoms will be present too.

Along with the head shaking, you should notice one or more of these traits.

If none of these symptoms reflect your child, then refer back to the list of common reasons for your child’s head shaking and play detective until you figure out which it is.

1) Poor Eye Contact

If your baby doesn’t make eye contact with you or the others living in your home, then take note.

By three months of age, your baby should be able to follow things with their eyes.

For example, if you hold a toy a foot away from your baby’s face, they should be able to follow that toy with their eyes as you move it from side to side.

2) Does Not Engage In Back And Forth Interactions

The game peek-a-boo is used in many screenings for autism because it shows whether or not a child can appropriately interact with another human.

As infants, that interaction starts with “babbles” and “coos” and moves into games like peek-a-boo.

3) Does Not Smile At You

Have you ever noticed how infants seem to be so fascinated by faces? They trick us into believing we have “the touch” because they’re so willing to smile at us.

Babies who don’t engage in what is known as the “social smile” should be screened.

The “social smile” starts between 6 and 8 weeks old.

4) Doesn’t “Babble”

At around 8 months, you should start to hear sounds coming from your child that sound like “ba-ba-ba” and “da-da-da.”

Children with autism usually don’t start to babble until around 12 months, due to speech delays.

5) No Pointing

Pointing is actually a language development milestone.

It begins with reaching, which babies start to do between 4 and 6 months. They’ll reach for a familiar face or a toy above them, etc.

Pointing begins around 12 months old. Your child will point at things they want to show you that they don’t yet have the language for.

6) Unusual Gaze

If your child seems to stare off into the distance often and not hear you when you speak to them, test for hearing problems, but also for autism.

7) Head Lag

A study was conducted on 6-month-old babies to observe how they pull themselves up.

The children who had a hard time holding their heads up in pull to sit exercises were more likely to receive an autism diagnosis.

8) Repetitive Behaviors Or Getting Fixated On Things For Hours

Repetition and fixation happen at the same time in children with autism.

For example: lining up cars in a row over and over and over for an hour.

In babies, this looks more like rubbing a blanket on their face over and over and over.

9) Doesn’t Want To Be Held Or Consoled By You

Children with autism typically do not like being held or cuddled, even starting at a few months old.

Mothers whose children were eventually diagnosed with autism can recall how hard things like breastfeeding were, since children with ASD don’t like to feel held down.

As they get older, you’ll see this in the way they hug. Don’t take it personally.

Sensory challenges are universal across the autism spectrum.

10) Nonstop Crying

If your child cries constantly and it isn’t due to colic, they could be over-stimulated because of a sensory processing issue.

Try controlling their environment by lowering the lighting and removing extra noise.

If you notice a difference after you adjust their surroundings, then it’s certainly sensory related.

11) Losing Acquired Skills

Children with autism tend to lose skills they’ve previously acquired as they grow older.

A child that’s 2 years of age might lose skills they’ve acquired when they were 6 months, 12 months and 18 months of age – such as eye contact, ability to interact with others and ability to comprehend what’s being said to them with words.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “‘Losing Acquired Skills’ is a HUGE sign of autism. This is the primary symptom I screen for at well visits.

Where I practice, we have parents complete developmental screening forms at the 15 month, 18 month, 2 year, and 3 year old visits in addition to our clinical assessments.

Once symptoms of concern are identified, my initial referral is to an audiologist for an age appropriate hearing evaluation, and then to a developmental pediatrician.”

12) Intensifies In Moments Of Distress

If you notice that your baby’s head movement from side to side intensifies during moments of distress, such as when they’re anxious about something, fearful about something, hungry and crying, etc .. That could be another sign of autism that you have to keep an eye out for.

This is especially true if it happens often during moments of stress and not just once in a blue moon.

My Child Has One Or More Of These Signs, What Now?

If you have a concern that your baby might have autism, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath, then speak with your child’s pediatrician about it.

He or she will go through a checklist with you, similar to the one you just read.

Two or more of the listed traits make your child eligible for a screening.

Autism screening is covered under the Affordable Care Act and under all other state insurance, otherwise it’s between $600-$1000 depending on where you live in the country.

Wrapping Up

There you have it, anything and everything your child’s head shaking could mean.

Don’t be overwhelmed. Just find where you child fits in all of this and march on.

If there’s reason for concern after getting all of the facts, just set up that first appointment with you baby’s doctor.

Remember, early intervention is working wonders for children on the autism spectrum.

You’re doing the best thing you can for your child. Googling something abnormal that you notice them doing is no sin at all, mom!

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Medically Reviewed By: Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Medically Reviewed By: Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. After graduating from Kalamazoo College and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, she completed her pediatric residency at Overlook and Morristown Memorial Hospitals. She is board certified in General Pediatrics.

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1 thought on “Baby Moving Head Side To Side Rapidly: Is It Autism?”

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    Links not working in this article, however, it is very informative. Being a mother of three children, one of whom has autism, I can very much relate to how a new mother would feel.

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