Just when you think you've got your new little one figured out, he starts rocking or swaying. This behavior is disconcerting to parents who might worry that something is wrong. In most cases, body swaying is a normal response to daily stimulus. Continue to respond to your child's needs with love and support, which helps him feel safe and secure. By early childhood, rocking behaviors usually disappear on their own.
When you consider that your baby spent the first nine months of life swaying in your womb, rocking during infancy seems to be a natural way to recreate that sense of safety and security. Babies typically rock or sway as they transition from wakefulness to sleep, notes Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, a neurodevelopmental pediatric specialist and co-editor of "Autism Spectrum Disorders: What Every Parent Needs to Know." "The rhythmic motion seems necessary to soothe or calm the central nervous system," Rosenblatt said. Rocking during infancy is common and is usually not a cause for concern.
Most babies start rocking between the ages of 5 and 9 months. This behavior continues through the early preschool years and usually wanes by age 3. Some children might continue to rock themselves to sleep or suck a thumb through the late preschool years. Don't worry that this behavior is babyish or silly. Learning to comfort oneself is a major achievement for young children. It might also mean more restful nights for you. A child who can lull himself back to sleep after awakening during the night is less likely to wake a parent for help.
Many kids who rock or sway might also bang their heads. You might notice your little one banging his head against a crib or wall. Some children bang their heads into their pillows while lying on their tummies. This behavior can be frightening to parents, but usually causes no harm and actually soothes young children. Boys are three times more likely to engage in head-banging than girls, according to California pediatrician Alan Greene. Children typically bang their heads to fall asleep or when they're upset.
Up to 20 percent of typically developing children engage in head banging or rocking. Seek medical advice, though, if you fear that your child could hurt herself. Rocking could also indicate a more serious condition, such as autism, especially when combined with other symptoms such as a lack of language, gesturing or pretend play by 14 months of age, or the refusal to make eye contact.
How to Respond
In general, the less attention you give body rocking, the better. Fussing over the behavior might reinforce it and actually prolong it. If your child starts rocking or head banging as part of a temper tantrum, distract him with a toy, book or song. Within a few months, rocking usually goes away, according to Greene.