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Baby Arching Back: Causes, Solutions, and When to Worry

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP
In most cases it's completely normal. However, there are some medical conditions that can cause this.

Is your baby frequently arching their back out of pain or discomfort? Do you notice them doing it while sleeping?

We know that as a parent, anything that seems out of the ordinary can be a cause for concern. We just want our babies to be okay, 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 why your baby is arching their back, as well as what you can do to help.

Causes of Baby Arching Back

Let’s get to the heart of the matter and look at the possibilities of what’s causing your baby’s arching back. We’ll consider less serious, more likely causes first. Then, we’ll look at some more serious potential causes.

Minor Causes of Baby’s Arching Back

1. Communication

Since babies are not able to 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 will know this is the case when, if you try your typical methods of attending to your baby’s needs such as feeding, repositioning, changing diapers, or distraction, the arching and crying stop pretty quickly.

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2. Colic

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 obvious reason, draws their legs up to their stomach, clenches their fist, or arches their back while crying, colic might be the answer.

The problem with colic is that no one seems to know 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 with 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 it is nothing you have done and that your baby is going to be fine. In the meantime, read up on colic for some tips and tricks on how to deal with it, both for your baby and for your own sanity.

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3. Reflux

If your baby is arching significantly and crying during or right after a feeding, gastroesophageal reflux could be the cause. Often called acid reflux, this happens when the 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 normal, 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 even 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 and make it harder for acid reflux to make its 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 very 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 actually classified as an eating disorder and might be brought on by any one of the following:

  • Physical illness.
  • Stress.
  • 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, but 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.

1. Apnea

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 themselves back into the arched position? If so, there is a chance this could be due to your baby suffering from an abnormal pattern of breathing during sleep, called sleep apnea.

Babies with sleep apnea can sometimes arch their backs while sleeping (4). This position helps to 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 its back when it is 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 a difficult time interpreting why you are picking them up. This behavior usually doesn’t happen all by itself. There are other early signs of autism such as poor eye contact, not smiling, and delayed development of language that are helpful to know and to watch for as your baby grows.

3. Cerebral Palsy

Is your baby repeatedly arching their back seemingly without being 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 delays in development, a neurologic disorder is something to consider.

4. Kernicterus

Kernicterus is a rare type of brain damage that can occur in babies suffering from severe jaundice (7). One of the symptoms of this is involuntary muscle spasms resulting in the baby arching its back severely.

Jaundice is fairly common, occurring in about three out of every five newborns. In some rare cases, the bilirubin levels get much higher than usual, and do not go down on their own or with treatment, and it’s in these cases that 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 arching of their backs.

Jaundice is treated 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 its 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 children under one year of age (8). In most cases, these seizures start around the age of four months, but in rare cases, they can start earlier, or even as late as two years old.

Unlike more traditional seizure disorders, infantile spasms do not usually come with generalized convulsions, making it harder for both parents to detect and doctors to give a diagnosis. 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 that these episodes are actually a form of seizures, the earlier the child can be treated with antiepileptic medications.

What Can I Do?

Whether your baby is arching their back due to a serious condition or a more routine one, as mothers, we always want to find a way to fix it. 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 with autism.

Sometimes all a baby needs is to be comforted and know you are a steady presence. It is essential that you are calm too so that you can transmit that energy to your baby. So, turn down the lights and hum a soft song. Soaking up the love for a bit might be just what they need to feel more comfortable and relax.

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 in the cuddling debate (9).

Cuddling helps to release oxytocin, a hormone that helps with bonding and feeling happy, in both mama and baby. Babies who are cuddled often tend to sleep better, have less stress, and even have more stable heart rates.

If you think your baby is suffering from reflux and it is just after a feeding, hold them in a more upright position in your arms. Gravity helps keep the stomach acid down where it belongs.

Your movements and your voice should be soft, slow, and gentle, instead of bouncing your baby up and down. Turn off the television sound and play soft music, for a soothing effect. You can even try giving your baby a relaxing back massage. If you have a mellow attitude and disposition, your baby will feel it and respond accordingly.
Headshot of Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP

Editor's Note:

Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP

3. Distract

Sometimes distraction is the simplest answer. A baby’s favorite lovey, brightly colored toy or a silly face from mom can make whatever was causing the arching and crying to simply be forgotten for the time being.

Should You Call The Doctor?

While the above tricks can be beneficial in helping calm baby down and relieve whatever underlying issue might be causing them to arch their back, sometimes the reality is that they won’t be enough.

If the above tricks don’t work, or you feel that something more serious might be going on, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s doctor. They might be able to not only give you a definitive answer, but 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.

Moms Bend, But Don’t Break

We all hate to see our babies uncomfortable or in pain. All any of us want is to be able to take it all away and for our babies to be happy and carefree.

We hope the information in this article helps you and your baby to be more comfortable and that whatever is causing your baby to arch their back is fleeting.

If you’re still struggling with your baby arching their back, take a moment, breathe deep, and realize this is not your fault. Try the tricks in this article and see if they help.

You know your baby best, so if you feel your baby is going through something serious, always trust your gut. Don’t hesitate to contact your baby’s doctor.

Headshot of Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Gina Jansheski, MD, FAAP

Dr. Gina Jansheski is a board-certified pediatrician with over 20 years of experience treating infants and children of all ages in many different settings. Dr. Jansheski is the mother to three sons, has sponsored a young girl in India for the past 7 years and has also devoted her time to a new charity that she founded, Helping Hands M.D. feeding street animals in Thailand and India.