Understanding Rhythmic Motion Disorder in Toddlers: What Parents Need to Know

Understanding Rhythmic Motion Disorder in Toddlers: What Parents Need to Know

Understanding Rhythmic Motion Disorder in Toddlers: What Parents Need to Know

As a toddler parent, you've probably witnessed your little one engage in adorable and sometimes puzzling behaviours. 

One such behaviour that might leave you scratching your head is rhythmic motion disorder (RMD). 

Rhythmic Motion Disorder is a relatively common occurrence among toddlers aged 2 to 4, and it often raises questions for parents. In this blog, we'll explore what RMD is, what it looks like in toddlers, and what parents need to know about this curious phenomenon.

What is Rhythmic Motion Disorder?

Rhythmic Motion Disorder, or RMD, is a term used to describe repetitive rhythmic movements or behaviours that some toddlers exhibit, often when they're tired or trying to soothe themselves to sleep. These movements can include headbanging, body rocking, head rolling, or even banging their legs against the cot or bed.

Now, let's delve deeper into what RMD looks like in toddlers.

What RMD Looks Like in 2-4-Year-Olds

  1. Headbanging: This is one of the most common RMD behaviours. Your toddler may repeatedly bang their head against a pillow, mattress, or cot. It can be alarming to witness, but most children do not injure themselves while headbanging.

  2. Body Rocking: Another typical RMD behaviour is swaying or rocking their entire body while sitting or lying down. This can be a comforting activity for many children and often helps them fall asleep.

  3. Head Rolling: Some toddlers may roll their heads from side to side while lying on their backs. Like other RMD behaviours, this is usually harmless and serves as a way for them to self-soothe.

  4. Leg Banging: Occasionally, toddlers may kick or bang their legs against the cot, wall, or bed. This rhythmic leg movement is another way they try to calm themselves down.

What Parents Need to Know About RMD

  1. It's Common: Rhythmic Motion Disorder is surprisingly common among toddlers. Research suggests that up to 20% of children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years may exhibit these behaviours at some point.
  2. Usually Harmless: While it might seem concerning, RMD is typically harmless. Most children do not hurt themselves while engaging in these rhythmic motions. However, it's essential to ensure the environment is safe to prevent accidents.
  3. Self-Soothing: RMD is often a way for toddlers to self-soothe. They may engage in these behaviours when they are tired, anxious, or having trouble falling asleep. It's a way for them to comfort themselves and find a sense of security.
  4. Outgrow it: Many toddlers naturally outgrow RMD as they get older. It's a phase that tends to diminish by the age of 4 or 5. However, if you have concerns about your child's behavior or if it persists beyond this age, it's a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional for guidance.
  5. Safety Precautions: While RMD itself is generally safe, it's crucial to ensure your child's sleeping environment is secure. Remove any sharp or hard objects from their cot or bed to prevent injury. Make sure they have a comfortable and safe space to engage in these motions if they need to.
  6. Seek Guidance if Concerned: If you're worried about your child's RMD or if it becomes more severe or disruptive, don't hesitate to seek advice from your baby’s doctor, especially if you notice these behaviours outside of sleep.
  7. Under tired: Often babies with RMD are under tired. If you notice your toddler doing this for long periods in the night, its is likely they are physically or actually under tired. Increase their physical activity or push bed time out or reduce a nap.
  8. Language matters: Don’t talk in front of your toddler about them being a poor sleeper, or a bad sleeper due to their RMD, they will become increasingly aware they settle to sleep differently to their peers and you don’t want to create sleep anxiety. Give them strategies such as a noise machine they can turn on themselves, or a sleep spray they can use themselves.
  9. Encourage healthy sleep habits: As they get older, if you find your child is not completely growing out of this behaviour or struggles to settle to sleep due to being under-tired. Limit screens from 4pm and encourage looking at books, reading, and audio books as a way to relax before sleep. Encourage your child to decide when they are tired enough to sleep. As long as they stay in bed and read/listen/look at books, they will know when they’re tired enough to sleep. Forcing lights out on an under-tired child with RMD, will only result in hours of rocking or banging.
  10. ADHD: While further study is needed, there does appear to be a significant number of children who have RMD who then go on to be diagnosed ADHD. At this stage this looks like a correlation with the causational link not yet established. Walters AS, Silvestri R, Zucconi M, Chandrashekariah R, Konofal E. Review of the possible relationship and hypothetical links between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the simple sleep related movement disorders, parasomnias, hypersomnias, and circadian rhythm disorders. J Clin Sleep Med. 2008 Dec 15;4(6):591-600. PMID: 19110891; PMCID: PMC2603539.

Case Study: Jake's Journey: Overcoming Rhythmic Motion Disorder

Meet Jake, a spirited and active 3-year-old boy who was diagnosed with Rhythmic Motion Disorder (RMD). Jake's parents, Sarah and Mark, first noticed his unusual headbanging behavior when he was around 18 months old. Concerned about their son's safety and well-being, they embarked on a journey to understand RMD better and help their little one sleep peacefully.

The Beginning of Jake's RMD

Jake's parents initially thought the headbanging was a phase that would pass. However, as it continued and became more frequent, they began to worry. Jake would rhythmically bang his head against his cot rail, often for extended periods before falling asleep. 

It was distressing for Sarah and Mark to watch, and they sought advice from their pediatrician.


Diagnosis and Early Intervention

After thoroughly examining and discussing Jake's behavior, the pediatrician diagnosed him with Rhythmic Motion Disorder. 

They explained that this was a relatively common phenomenon among toddlers, often occurring when they were trying to self-soothe and fall asleep. The pediatrician assured Sarah and Mark that, while the headbanging was unsettling to witness, it was usually harmless.

Creating a Safe Sleep Environment

Armed with a better understanding of RMD, Sarah and Mark focused on creating a safe sleep environment for Jake. They removed any hard or sharp objects from his cot and ensured it was free from potential hazards. This helped alleviate their concerns about him injuring himself while headbanging.

Monitoring Jake's Progress

Over the next few years, Jake continued to engage in headbanging and other RMD behaviors. However, his parents noticed that the frequency and intensity gradually decreased as he got older. They kept a close eye on his progress, documenting any changes in his behavior.

Outgrowing RMD


Around the age of 4, Jake's Rhythmic Motion Disorder started to fade. He became less reliant on headbanging and other rhythmic movements to fall asleep. By the time he was 5, Jake rarely engaged in these behaviours at all. His parents were relieved to see their son naturally outgrowing RMD, just as their pediatrician had predicted.

Jake as an 8-Year-Old

Fast forward to today, and Jake is a healthy and active 8-year-old boy who sleeps soundly through the night. His parents are delighted with his progress and grateful that they sought guidance when they first noticed his RMD. While the experience was initially distressing, it has become a distant memory in their parenting journey.



Emma Purdue

Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the Block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education.

Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you


Leave a comment

* Required fields

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.