Does your baby frequently arch their back out of pain or discomfort? Do you notice them doing it while sleeping?
As parents, we know that anything that seems out of the ordinary can be a cause for concern. We just want our babies to be OK, to thrive and grow. When things don’t go as planned, our alarm bells start ringing.
In this article, we’ll discuss the possible reasons your baby is arching their back, as well as what you can do to help.
- Babies may arch their back to communicate discomfort, such as being tired, hungry, or upset.
- Back arching can be a sign of colic, reflux, or rumination disorder, which are less serious conditions.
- More serious causes of back arching include sleep apnea, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, kernicterus, and infantile spasms.
- Try consoling, cuddling, repositioning, or distracting your baby to help alleviate discomfort, and consult a doctor if symptoms persist or worsen.
Causes of Baby Arching Back
We’ll consider less serious, more likely causes of back arching first. Then, we’ll look at some more serious potential causes.
Minor Causes of Baby’s Arching Back
Since babies cannot talk and communicate their needs verbally, they often use physical cues to let you know when something is bothering them. Sometimes they will simply arch their back as a way to communicate with you and give you the message that they are upset, tired, or hungry.
You know this is the case when your typical methods of attending to your baby’s needs, such as feeding, repositioning, changing diapers, or distraction, make the arching stop.
Ah, colic, the word so many parents hear but no one wants to deal with. If your baby cries for long periods of time for no apparent reason, draws their legs up to their stomach, clenches their fists, or arches their back while crying, colic might be the cause.
The problem with colic is that no one knows what causes it (1). Some theories are that it is gas or poor digestion, an immature nervous system, or a sensitive temperament, but the reason for it is still unknown. If your baby is feeding and growing normally, it is very unlikely to be a problem for much longer. The good news about colic is that it usually clears up on its own when your baby is around three to four months of age.
No matter what the trigger is, know that nothing you have done has caused it, and your baby will be fine. In the meantime, read up on colic for some tips and tricks on how to deal with it — for your baby’s sake and your own sanity.
If your baby is arching significantly and crying during or right after a feeding, gastroesophageal reflux could be the cause. This condition is often called acid reflux, and it happens when stomach acids are regurgitated up into the esophagus, causing pain and burning. If you’ve ever experienced heartburn as an adult, this is basically what a baby is going through when they have reflux.
If your baby is suffering from reflux, they might also spit up larger amounts and more frequently than usual, have sour breath, and be a little more comfortable being carried upright. Depending on how bad your baby’s reflux is, your doctor might recommend a special thickened formula or an acid reflux medication.
In rare cases, and usually only when there is an underlying chronic medical condition contributing to the problem, doctors will perform surgery to tighten the esophageal sphincter to make it harder for stomach acids to make their way up (2).
4. Rumination Disorder
Rumination is a disorder in which an infant or child swallows food, purposefully regurgitates it, chews it, and then either swallows it again or spits it out (3). If this is what is going on with your baby, chances are they might arch their back and often make a sucking motion with their lips while pulling their head back as they try to bring up the food they swallowed.
Rumination is classified as an eating disorder and might be brought on by any one of the following:
- Physical illness.
- Needing attention.
- Neglect or abuse.
- Neurodevelopmental disorders.
Other symptoms of rumination might include weight loss, tooth decay, bad breath, and chapped lips. The good news about rumination is most children eventually grow out of it. Your doctor can probably give you tips to help support your baby and discourage the behavior in the meantime.
More Serious Causes of Baby Arching Back
These situations are less likely, but you may want to consider them if you’re sure the reasons we’ve already discussed are off the table.
Have you noticed your baby arching their back while sleeping? If you try to move them to a different position, do they either wake up crying or move back into the arched position? If so, there is a chance your baby could be suffering from sleep apnea, an abnormal pattern of breathing during sleep.
Babies with sleep apnea can sometimes arch their backs while sleeping (4). This position helps open up their airways and makes breathing easier while they sleep.
2. Autism Spectrum Disorders
Children with autism have issues relating to others and developing social bonds, even to the people closest to them. They also have problems reading facial expressions and cues.
If your baby arches their back when being held, as if trying to get away from you, autism in its early stages is a possible cause to consider (5). In this case, it would be to avoid physical contact, and they are having difficulty interpreting why you are picking them up. This behavior usually doesn’t happen all by itself. Other early signs of autism, such as poor eye contact, not smiling, and delayed language development, are helpful to know and watch for as your baby grows.
3. Cerebral Palsy
Does your baby repeatedly arch their back without seeming to be able to control it? Does it happen as your baby’s legs stretch out and their arms bend? Cerebral palsy can be a cause.
As an umbrella diagnosis, cerebral palsy refers to a group of disorders affecting a person’s ability to move and control their movements (6). It’s caused by brain damage occurring either during pregnancy or shortly after birth.
Persistence of the tonic labyrinthine reflex, involving the baby arching their back, tilting their head, straightening their legs, and bending arms, can be one of the first signs of cerebral palsy. This reflex is normal in the first few months of life, but if the arching is very frequent or exaggerated, and there are developmental delays, a neurologic disorder is something to consider.
Kernicterus is a rare type of brain damage that can occur in babies who have severe jaundice (7). One of the symptoms of this is involuntary muscle spasms resulting in the baby arching their back severely.
Jaundice is relatively common, occurring in about three out of five newborns (8). In rare cases, bilirubin levels get much higher than usual and do not go down on their own or with treatment. In these cases, kernicterus is a concern. Besides being yellow, babies suffering from kernicterus might be lethargic with weak muscle tone, not feed well, and have a high-pitched cry along with irritability and back arching.
Doctors treat jaundice with phototherapy and formula for hydration. But true kernicterus is an emergency situation, often requiring an exchange transfusion, where the baby’s blood is exchanged with healthy blood to remove the bilirubin.
5. Infantile Spasms
Is your baby having episodes of arching their back and spasming in a way that does not seem like they can control it?
Infantile spasms is a rare seizure disorder that occurs in some children under one year of age (9). In most cases, these seizures start around the age of 4 months, but in rare cases, they can start earlier or even as late as 2 years old.
Unlike more traditional seizure disorders, infantile spasms do not usually come with generalized convulsions, making it harder for parents to detect and doctors to diagnose. The seizures are very difficult to control, even with medication, and babies with this condition are at a greater risk for developmental delays. The earlier it is discovered, the earlier the child can be treated with antiepileptic medications.
What Can I Do?
As mothers, we always want to fix whatever is bothering our babies. This applies whether your baby is arching their back due to a serious condition or a more routine one. So pause, take a deep breath, and try these tricks to see if they can help your baby calm down and relax.
1. Console and Calm
Take your baby to a quiet, peaceful place without a lot of noise or distractions. This will allow them to settle down and can especially help if the arching is occurring due to an emotional problem such as stress or a sensory issue such as autism.
Sometimes all a baby needs is to be comforted and know you are a steady presence. It is essential that you remain calm, too, so you can transmit that energy to your baby. So, turn down the lights and hum a soft song. They might just need to soak up the love for a bit to feel more comfortable and relaxed.
2. Cuddle and Reposition
Cuddling with your baby can be comforting for both you and your little one. And I’m not just making this up; science has my back on this one (10).
Cuddling helps release oxytocin, a hormone that helps with bonding and feeling happy, in both mama and her baby. Cuddled babies often tend to have better sleep, less stress, and more stable heart rates.
If you think your baby is suffering from reflux, hold them in a more upright position after feedings. Gravity helps keep the stomach acid down where it belongs.
Your movements and voice should be soft, slow, and gentle, instead of bouncing your baby up and down. Turn off the television, and play soft music for a soothing effect. You can even give your baby a relaxing back massage. If you have a mellow attitude and disposition, your baby will feel it and respond accordingly.
Editor's Note:Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP
Sometimes distraction is the simplest answer. Your baby’s favorite lovey, brightly colored toy, or a silly face from mom can make them forget whatever was causing the arching and crying for the time being.
Should You Call The Doctor?
While our suggested tricks can be beneficial in helping calm your baby down and relieve whatever underlying issue might be causing them to arch their back, sometimes they won’t be enough.
If nothing is working, or you feel that something more serious might be happening, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s doctor. They might be able to give you a definitive answer and provide advice, medications, or treatments to help solve your baby’s problem.
Don’t forget to document what you’ve experienced. Sometimes it’s hard for doctors to diagnose what goes on outside of their examination rooms, but here are a couple of things you can bring with you to help them see the whole picture.
- Photos or videos of your child when they are arching their back.
- A list of questions you have.
- A list of things you have already tried to help your baby.