Moms Bend, But Don’t Break -- How To Handle Your Baby’s Arching Back

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.

It’s okay — breathe, mama. We’re not going to let you fight this battle alone. We want to help you find an answer.

And because of that, today’s article will discuss the reasons your baby could be experiencing this behavior, as well as what you can do to help it.

What Could Be The Cause?

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 in that way, they often use physical cues to let you know when something is bothering or irritating them. Whether baby is upset, tired, or hungry, sometimes they will simply arch their back as a way to communicate with you.

2. Colic

Ah, colic, the word so many parents hear but no one wants to deal with. If your baby cries the majority of the time with no obvious reason, draws their legs up to their stomach, clenches their fist, or arches their back out of anger or pain, colic might the answer.

The problem with colic is no one seems to know what causes it (source). Some say it is gas, an immature nervous system, or a sensitive temperament but no one knows for sure.

But no matter what the trigger is, know that it is nothing you have done that is causing it.

The good news with colic is it usually clears up on its own when your baby is around 3 to 4 months old. In the meantime, read up on colic for some tips and tricks on how to deal with it, both for your baby and your own sanity.

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3. Reflux

If your baby is arching their back during or after a feeding, gastroesophageal reflux (GER) could be the cause. Often called acid reflux, this happens when the stomach acids are regurgitated up into the esophagus, causing pain and burning (source). If you’ve ever experienced heartburn as an adult, this is basically what a baby is going through when they have GER.

If your baby is suffering from GER, they might also spit up frequently, have sour breath, and be more comfortable being carried up upright. Depending on how bad your baby’s acid reflux is, your doctor might recommend a thicker formula or even an acid reflux medication.

In very rare cases, doctors will perform surgery to tighten the esophageal sphincter to make it harder for acid reflux to make its way up (source).

4. Rumination Disorder

Rumination is a disorder in which a baby or child swallows food, regurgitates it, and then chews it and either swallows it again or spits it out (source). If this is what is going on with your baby, chances are they might arch their back and pull their head back as they try to regurgitate the food they swallowed. Usually, they will also make a sucking motion with their lips as they are arching their backs.

Rumination is actually classified as an eating disorder and might be caused by any one of the following:

  • Physical illness.
  • Stress.
  • Looking for attention.
  • Neglect or abuse.

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 dissuade the behavior in the meantime.

More Serious Causes

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 back into the arched position? If so, there is a chance this could be due to your baby suffering from obstructive sleep apnea.

Babies suffering from sleep apnea can sometimes arch their backs while sleeping (source). This helps them open up their airways and makes breathing easier while they sleep (source).

2. Autism or Asperger Syndrome

While not exactly the same, Asperger is considered a part of the autism spectrum, so we’ll tackle them both at the same time. Both disorders involve having issues developing social bonds, even to the people closest to them. Children with both disorders also have problems reading facial expressions and cues (source).

If your baby arches its back when it is being held, as if it is trying to get away from you, autism or Asperger’s could be the cause (source). This is because they are trying to avoid physical contact, probably because they are having a difficult time interpreting why you are trying to pick them up.

3. Cerebral Palsy

Is your baby 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 could be the culprit.

Cerebral palsy is an umbrella diagnosis that refers to a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move (source). It’s caused by brain damage occurring either during pregnancy or shortly after birth.

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 (source).

Take Heart

While there is, unfortunately, no cure for cerebral palsy, and it is a lifelong condition, some of the signs can get better over time. The tonic labyrinthine reflex usually disappears when the child is around 3 and a half years old.

4. Kernicterus

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

Jaundice is fairly normal, occurring in about every 3 in 5 newborns (source). In some rare cases, the bilirubin levels do not go down on their own or with treatment, and it’s in these cases that kernicterus is a concern. Babies suffering from kernicterus might be lethargic, have a high-pitched cry, have a fever, and weak muscle tone.

Jaundice is treated with phototherapy and formula for hydration but true kernicterus is an emergency situation often treated with an exchange transfusion (where the baby’s blood is exchanged with healthy blood).

5. Infantile Spasms

Is your baby arching its back and spasming in a way that does not seem like they can control it?

Infantile Spasms (IS) is a rare seizure disorder that occurs most often in children under the age of 1 (source). In most cases, these seizures start around the age of four months, but in rare cases, it can start earlier, and even start as late as 2 years old.

Unlike more traditional seizures disorders, IS does not usually come with generalized convulsions, making it harder for both parents and doctors to detect. Because it is harder to detect, babies with this condition are at a greater risk for developmental delays due to the disorder.

The earlier it is caught, the earlier the child can be treated with antiepileptic medications.

6. Nerve Damage

Many infants cry, but most don’t arch their back when doing so, especially not while sitting up. If your child does this, it could point to nerve damage that likely occurred at birth.

Why This Happens

Sometimes during the birthing process, the baby might be in an unfavorable position, or the doctor for some reason needs the baby out faster than they want to come. In cases like that, the baby might be turned, moved, or pulled out of the birth canal. Unfortunately, while this does the job of getting the baby out, it can also damage the baby’s nerves.

The cranial nerves and spinal cord are the nerves most often injured during birth (source). Even a cranial nerve injury, which involves the face and neck function, can cause your baby to arch their back. A baby with a cranial nerve injury might feel teething pain more severely than other babies, for example, and would possibly arch their back out of pain.

While spinal cord injuries are very rare, they do happen. Since it takes a lot of force to damage the spinal cord, its injuries are often more severe. Injuries to the spinal cord can affect a baby’s ability to pump blood and even breathe correctly.

In more serious instances, injuries to the spinal cord and cranial nerves can result in various forms of palsy or even paralysis.

What Can I Do?

Whether your baby is arching their back due to a serious condition or a more benign 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, calm place without a lot of distractions. This will allow them to settle down and can especially help if the arching is occurring due to a sensory issue such as with autism.

Sometimes all a baby needs is to be comforted and know they have a steady presence in their corner. So, turn down the lights and hum a soft song. Letting them soak up the love for a bit might be just what they need to calm down 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 (source).

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

If you think your baby is suffering from reflux, turn them upright instead of on their side or on their backs. Gravity helps keep the stomach acid down where it belongs.

3. Distract

Sometimes distraction is the simplest answer. A baby’s favorite lovey 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 a give you a definitive answer, but they might also be able to provide 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 solve the situation.

When It’s All Said And Done

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

We hope the tricks in this article help 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.

If you feel your baby is going through something serious, trust your gut. Don’t hesitate to contact your baby’s doctor.

Have you trudged your way through this mucky situation and come out on the other side? Do you have any tips or tricks not listed in this article that you think would help moms dealing with it now? If so, please leave your ideas in the comments section below!

And if you know a mom who is dealing with this, please share our article with her.

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