Toddler Tantrums and Headbanging. What might be the problem…

We came across this quite early with our little boy. At first he seemed to scream for no reason. We did some research and by trial and error discovered that colours and preservatives had a huge impact on his behaviour. The screaming stopped. As he got older, on the odd occasion we dropped the ball, and boy do we know it. One of the reactions he had from eating foods that contained some of these ingredients was banging his head on the floor, table, toys… everything. Going into a hyperactive fit almost, uncontrollable kicking and just going completely crazy.

I did some research and found out that there is one particular ingredient found in many foods that is very likely the culprit of this. Now, before I go any further, I am not qualified in any way to diagnose or say either way for certain. I am just a Mum who has done a great deal of reading and has found this true for my family personally. Others may have completely different opinions and experiences and that is fine. This is just my own perspective based on my research.

According to The Food Intolerance Network:

“Head banging is one of the childhood problems such as restless legs and hyperactivity that have increased dramatically since the introduction of processed foods in the 1960s in the USA and 1970s elsewhere. Although rarely mentioned in parenting books 30 years ago, head banging is now considered to be a normal childhood behaviour, estimated to affect up to 20% of healthy children in the USA, and 5-15% of children in Australia.

It is more common in boys than girls, and in children with autism. Toddlers usually bang their heads against their cot, but it can be walls, floors and other objects. Children who frequently engage in this behaviour can develop a bald spot or long lasting bruising as a result.

Paediatricians and psychologists generally suggest that head banging is an attention seeking or pleasurable repetitive behaviour and that parents should ignore it. Some children have to wear protective headgear to protect them from brain damage.”

In our experience, head banging appears to be related to food chemicals. Our son started head banging around nine months of age when he was introduced to to more solid foods, however prior to this, he would scream and kick his legs continuously after certain foods. The difficulty is that children who are not yet speaking clearly are unable to communicate what is the matter and why they do it, although when they avoid certain food chemicals, their head banging or behaviours stop.

The good news is that research shows most children generally grow out of head banging before school age. This is because the babies, toddlers and young children are most vulnerable to the effects of food chemicals. The effects of food chemicals are related to dose, and dose for weight, children eat, drink and breathe more than adults. As they grow, their tolerance can increase or at least they may become more capable of controlling their behaviours. Research suggests that in autistic children, extremely food sensitive children, or those with a high intake of processed foods, the head banging may continue. Most children who have shown head banging and behaviours as toddlers are likely to be intolerant to other food chemicals with other symptoms as well.

Although a lot of children grow out of the head banging behaviour at a young age, those who are still doing it when old enough to communicate their feelings have often explained that the banging of their heads due to their head hurting, as in severe headaches or migraines. I have so far suspected this to be the case with our little boy as during his episodes he often hits himself in the head or puts his hands over his ears.

So which colours are most likely the culprit? I have taken these excerpts from The Food Intolerance Network website which states that:

The FIN (Food Intolerance Network) database contains many reports of head banging in young children associated with artificial colours and especially annatto (yellow, natural colour 160b; annatto extracts; E160b). Many foods targeted at toddlers contain annatto, for example, yoghurts and Heinz Little Kids Apricot FlavouredSoft Fruit Bars for children aged 1-3 years. One mother who was already avoiding artificial colours reported that her two-year-old’s head banging dropped from 10 episodes per day to only one within two days of avoiding annatto.

A twelve-year-old former head banger doing the failsafe diet for behaviour and learning problems reverted to banging his head repeatedly against a brick wall during his annatto challenge. After the episode, he was able to describe a headache so severe and overwhelming that banging his head seemed to be the only way to obtain relief.

So which foods should we look at avoiding?

Preservatives, artificial flavours and other food chemicals can also be the cause of head banging and other behaviours.

  • Artificial colours
  • Preservatives (sorbates, benzoates, sulphites, nitrates, propionates)
  • Flavour enhancers (MSG 621 and others in the 600 range)
  • Strong added flavours
  • Natural colour Annatto 160b (from the seed coat of the tropical Bixa Orellana tree).

Annatto 160b is the most commonly used food colour in our food today. Unfortunately it is found in a wide range of both “healthy” and junk foods so make sure you read the packaging on items like:

  • breakfast cereals
  • yoghurt
  • custard
  • ice cream
  • margarine
  • crumbed or battered foods such as fish fingers or chicken nuggets
  • biscuits
  • dried apricot snacks
  • other snack foods.

It is very easy to choose foods labeled “all natural – no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives” and be completely unaware that these foods contain natural colour annatto 160b which has been proven to affect more people than artificial colours. The reaction to these colours are likely to be slightly more delayed than with artificial colours, which makes it even more difficult to identify. MSG and other flavour enhancers are also considered to be natural – although many consumers wouldn’t agree – and can be present in foods labelled ‘All Natural – no artificial flavours, colours or preservatives’. So don’t trust the front of the packet, always check the ingredients list for yourself.

Betacarotene natural colour 160, as found in carrots, is a safe alternative to annatto natural yellow colour andartificial yellow. Although Australian food manufacturers say it is too difficult and expensive to use, betacarotene is used extensively as a colouring in Europe.

What you can do to avoid these problems in your child?

  1. Read all ingredient labels and educate yourself on food additives and ingredients.
  2. Avoid artificial colours, annatto 160b and other nasty additives.
  3. Avoid preservatives and artificial flavours in foods and children’s medications (you can buy specially made additive free preparations from Compounding Pharmacists).
  4. If head banging continues consider a trial of an elimination diet to find out exactly which food chemicals are causing your child’s problem. Speak to a supportive GP for more information.
  5. If you think your child’s head banging is related to foods, share your story with the FedUp Food Intolerance Network to help others.

Share your experiences in the comments below! Just remember, I am not a medical professional. This is just information I have discovered on my own journey and of course you should always seek advice from your GP or Paediatrician before making any drastic changes to your or your child’s diet.

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