Do you or your child have bouts of banging your head or rhythmic rolling at night. It may be caused by rhythmic movement disorder. This little known symptom affects people worldwide, and not much is understood about how or why it happens. As a sufferer myself, I can sympathize with parents who are concerned when their child begins to show these signs, but thankfully, they are not something to worry about in most cases.
Rhythmic movement disorder is characterized by repetitive rhythmic movements, typically during sleep. In many cases, the movements involve the head, and some of the most common types are head banging and head rolling. The sufferer typically has no idea that they have started the behavior, and it may interrupt their sleep significantly. The extent to which it interrupts their life varies greatly, and many have absolutely no problems living with it and coping with the rhythmic movements.
In young children, this is actually quite common. Children often go through a phase of this, though by three years of age, it has usually passed. When a child doesn’t stop manifesting those signs, parents often worry about autism or mental retardation, both of which have a high co-morbidity with these symptoms. Fortunately, the high correlation doesn’t imply causality, and many adults live their entire lives with no problems. In general, there are more clear signs of autism or mental disabilities that are better indicators, and if this is the only symptom, the child is likely fine. If you are unsure, however, or other signs have appeared, you should always see a specialist.
I have lived my entire life with this disorder. In my case, relatively calm head banging occurs in my sleep, typically with a steady beat of about 60 beats per minute. I often wake up to find myself in the act of banging my head with no conscious decision to do so, and on the worst nights, it can become difficult to sleep. In my case, when the symptoms manifested, my parents weren’t worried at all, since other family members had been doing the same thing all of their life as well. Oftentimes I would be sleeping quietly when I would shift position and begin hitting my head. I also tend to hum to myself during the episodes. As a child, I also rocked back and forth and hummed to myself when seated, but that slowly disappeared by the time I was 10 (likely because I outgrew my favorite couch).
Today, I am often glad that I have rhythmic movement disorder. That is because I find the action of banging my head and humming extremely soothing. I am not alone in that either. Many sufferers report that going through the same movements while awake helps them relax, almost like a built-in meditation practice. The only time I dislike it is when I am in a high stress situation and need to sleep. Before big events, tests, job interviews, or other tense moments, I’m often awakened constantly throughout the night by my own head banging, and I’ve even awoken in the morning to find the part of my face that hits the pillow had turned red from irritation! Still, that is fairly minor.
I have been lucky enough to control the symptoms when I needed to. When I shared a bedroom in college, I was able to stop it from happening in all but two or three occasions. Likewise, I can prevent episodes from happening if someone is sleeping over with a little bit of concentration and by sleeping in an odd position. Unfortunately, as soon as that person leaves, I find myself back at it. Oddly, the first night in a different bed is also typically filled with episodes.
I have been able to live a successful life in spite of this minor problem. For most children, rhythmic movement disorder will resolve itself, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean the child will have autism of cognitive impairments. It may cause some trouble in their marriage someday, but compared to many disorders we can have, it is probably as minimal as they come. If you or your child has been living with this, I think you should feel lucky to have been afflicted with something so comparatively minor, and just monitor it to see if it can be helped by small interventions. There is no real cure for this, but understanding goes a long way to assisting people with symptoms.
SleepEducation.com: Rhythmic Movement