Ask An Expert / Parenting Challenges

My 11-month-old likes to play with her hair, and even pulls it. Is this trichotillomania?

Symptoms must be specific and impairing to merit diagnosis, and one year is quite young

Jerry Bubrick, PhD
Jerry Bubrick, PhD

Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My baby girl is 11 months old, and when she is going to sleep in my arms she likes to play with her fingers with her hair or my hair, and continues playing until she starts to pull it. I'm afraid about trichotillomania because my family has a history of psychiatric illness (mom with depressive disorder, sister with schizophrenia).On the other hand I wonder if it's just a habit that I could try to help her to change, for instance taking her hand away from her hair when she starts pulling on it. Do I need to find a psychiatrist? Or just wait and see if this behavior changes?

First, it’s great that you are reaching out for help on this, and shows your devotion to your daughter and your desire to become educated about these issues, which will be great for both of you down the road.

I don’t know of any evidence that trichotillomania can start as young as 11 months; typically we begin to see it in the 7 to 12 year old range. But the real question is what your daughter is actually doing with the hair that she plays with. My hunch is that this is a self-soothing behavior that also forges a connection between her and you, her mother. However, if she is actually pulling her hair out, and particularly if she is eating it after she pulls it out, that would be a major cause of concern.

So: if she is not pulling the hair out, and I don’t think it sounds like she is, then it is not trichotillomania, and there is no need for you to dissuade her from the behavior. If you find it harmful, or you are simply still worried about it, an easy way to prevent the pulling is to put band-aids on her fingers. This “dulls the weapon,” as it were.