The 6 Reasons Why Your Baby Might Be Arching Their Back

What your little one is trying to tell you.

baby arching back

When my son was two weeks old, he would scream and arch his back from 7:00pm to 10:00pm every single night. And my touch did nothing to comfort him.

As a first time mom, I thought I was already a failure.

When my son was 6 weeks old, he began turning his head to break contact with the bottle during feedings. Shortly after this started, he also began arching his back mid-feeding.

Fast forward 7 months later, he starts arching his back again and throwing himself backwards on the floor in what seemed like anger.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

I came to find out there are actually six main reasons why your baby may be arching his or her back. Starting with the more common ones and ending with the rarer ones, let’s take a look at them.

1. Colic

Does your baby cry for hours at a time and won’t stop no matter how much attention you give him? Does he clench his fists, stiffen or arch his back, or draw his legs up to his stomach?

If so, it could be colic. Colic typically occurs in newborns and goes away sometime around 3 months (or earlier). If your otherwise healthy son or daughter cries for “more than 3 hours a day for 3 days a week for 3 weeks in a row” then they likely have colic.

The frustrating thing about colic is that while a lot of babies get it (which is oddly comforting), doctors still don’t know what exactly causes it (not so comforting). WebMD states that it might be “the result of a baby’s sensitive temperament and an immature nervous system.” And it can be hard for him to stop crying once he gets so worked up.

Many parents, myself included, think that colic is basically caused by gas. But WebMD states that while gas and digestive issues might make colic worse, it’s not the cause. It’s important to note that if you’re baby is experiencing other symptoms, like vomiting, diarrhea, fever, etc. these are not signs of colic and should be evaluated by a doctor immediately.

So what can you do for colic?

First of all, know that you are an amazing parent and that colic isn’t the result of anything you are doing wrong! I know I felt like a failure when I couldn’t get him to stop crying in those early weeks. But know that you aren’t alone and that you aren’t a failure!

Another thing you can do is take notice of any patterns in their behavior. If they are inconsolable at the same times of day, then try to keep visitors away and don’t make plans to go out during that time frame.

Keep the lights low (or off) and noise to a minimum. You may want to try taking your baby for a walk in the stroller or with a baby carrier—or putting her in the carseat and going for a ride.

Sometimes nothing will seem like it’s working so be sure to put baby in a safe place, like their crib, and walk away for a few moments to collect yourself. And be sure to ask others for help! Maybe your partner or a friend or family member can come over and hold your baby while you go for a walk or drive to clear your head.

Remember to take care of yourself during this time. Be gracious to yourself—you’re doing the best you can and this stage will pass soon!

2. Acid reflux or GERD

According to Parents advisor Dr. Ari Brown, the author of Baby 411, arching the back can be a baby’s reaction to pain.

The Mayo Clinic explains how the lower esophageal sphincter that’s located between the stomach and the esophagus isn’t fully formed in infants. So instead of keeping the contents of the stomach where they belong between swallows or after a feeding, it can sometimes allow breastmilk or formula to flow back into the esophagus.

The fact that babies lie flat most of the time as well as being fed an all liquid diet can make it easier for the contents of the stomach to escape upwards. A premature birth can also be a factor.

For many babies, there isn’t enough stomach acid in the back flow to cause discomfort. For other babies, like my son, there can be visible signs of discomfort such as arching of the back, irritability during or after a feeding, refusal of the bottle or nipple, consistent spitting up (sometimes forcefully), weight loss, and a sour milk smell to their breath.

It’s important to remember that it’s normal for babies to spit up frequently. But if it starts to negatively affect them, then it’s called GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Over time, if GERD is left untreated, the acid can cause damage to their esophagus.

So what can you do to ease your baby’s discomfort? The Mayo Clinic suggests:

  • Burp your baby more often during feedings
  • Feed baby smaller amounts more frequently
  • Keep baby upright after a feeding for 20 minutes
  • Experiment with eliminating different foods from your diet if breastfeeding, or switch to a different formula if you’re formula-feeding
  • Try a different kind of bottle or nipple size if you’re bottle-feeding
  • Use rice cereal as a thickening agent in formula (if formula-feeding) to add more weight to the liquid so that it can’t escape up the esophagus as easily

When my son was diagnosed with reflux, we initially tried the smaller feedings, keeping him upright, and adding rice cereal to his formula.

All of these things helped a little bit, but didn’t entirely take away his discomfort. Ultimately, at the advice of our pediatrician, we put our son on prescription acid reflux medication and finally he experienced relief!

If you think you’re baby has reflux, speak with your doctor. He or she can usually diagnose it by asking you questions, but, in severe cases, other medical testing may be necessarily. Don’t ever give baby over-the-counter acid reflux medication.

3. Frustration

Babies usually cry if they’re overstimulated, tired, or upset. But in older infants and toddlers, sometimes they will resort to arching their backs and throwing themselves backwards in frustration.

Your growing baby is now able to distinguish between what they like and don’t like—but she probably doesn’t have the ability to express her emotions verbally yet. So she may resort to this behavior to try to get you to understand her.

So what can you do?

According to the medical experts at BabyCentre, some babies respond well to being held or hugged and spoken to gently in order to help calm themselves down. Yet for some, this can actually make them more distressed.

Therefore, place him on a soft surface, stay close to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself, and wait it out. Then, try to distract him with a toy or activity that he usually likes.

4. Autism

Does your child arch his back often when you pick him up or try to cuddle him? This could be a sign of autism.

According to WebMD, 1 in 150 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Most children are usually between the ages of 18 months and 5 years when they are diagnosed.

But the range of symptoms varies greatly and not every child has every symptom. With that said, a common and most noticeable symptom is that a child may arch his back when you pick him up, cuddle, or hug him. It’s important to remember however that this is just one symptom.

If your child’s social or language skills seem to start going in reverse or if he struggles to make eye contact, then your child may be showing signs of ASD. Be sure to bring up these concerns to a medical professional to be evaluated.

Official diagnosis takes a couple steps since no medical testing is available yet to give a quick and definitive diagnosis. First, your child’s doctor should be screening your child at each of his well-visits. This may be in the form of a questionnaire or verbal questions from your doctor about developmental “milestones.”

The next step would be to have a comprehensive evaluation completed in which your child is observed and assessed by a developmental specialist. If you suspect that your child might have autism, be sure to speak with your child’s pediatrician. The earlier it is diagnosed, the earlier the interventions can begin.

5. Kernicterus

I had never heard of this, but according to WebMD, kernicterus “is a very rare type of brain damage that occurs in a newborn with severe jaundice.” When bilirubin, a substance in the blood of newborns, builds up and is left untreated, it can migrate into the brain causing permanent damage. The good news is that today’s healthcare protocols often make kernicterus preventable.

Every baby is born with bilirubin in their blood. Doctors monitor for it either at the hospital or at the baby’s first pediatrician appointment—or both.

After birth, the baby’s liver and kidneys work to flush the bilirubin out by way of urine and bowel movements. But sometimes the baby’s body may not rid itself of the bilirubin fast enough, especially if your baby isn’t eating well.

Other underlying issues, like an intestinal blockage or hemolytic disease (when the rh factor in the mother’s blood is not compatible with her child’s), can also play a role in elevated bilirubin levels.

Mild cases of jaundice are pretty common in babies and don’t always require treatment. If they do need interventions to prevent their levels from increasing, phototherapy (light therapy) is usually performed in a hospital setting, plus either formula supplementation or intravenous fluid and/or a feeding tube.

Since jaundice levels usually peak by the fifth day after birth, make sure to schedule your first visit with your pediatrician for some time before that date.

Call your doctor immediately if you notice any yellowing on the face, tummy, arms, legs, or whites of your newborn’s eyes; your baby won’t eat; or if he or she is hard to wake since these may indicate jaundice. For more details on jaundice symptoms, click here.

In cases of kernicterus, symptoms include fever, lethargy, a high-pitched abnormal-sounding cry, and poor muscle tone. If your baby seems weak or “floppy”, followed sometimes by rigidity and arching of the back, it may indicate that kernicterus is starting to occur.

The treatments for kernicterus are the same as listed for jaundice (above). In addition, a blood transfusion is a potential treatment option if needed in rare but extreme cases.

6. Rumination Disorder

Rumination disorder is actually an eating disorder, seen most often in infants 3 to 12 months. Typically they will regurgitate their food, re-chew it, and either re-swallow or spit it out.

While the exact cause is unknown, it’s believed that physical illness, severe stress, neglect/abuse, or desire for attention can contribute to this disorder. It’s also unknown how frequently it occurs, since some older children may hide their behavior.

Symptoms in infants can include arching the back and head while making sucking motions with their lips as they try to regurgitate what’s in their stomach. Other symptoms include tooth decay, bad breath, weight loss, and chapped lips.

If you suspect that your baby may be experiencing this disorder, speak with your child’s doctor. He or she can do a physical exam and order further testing if needed to rule out gastrointestinal or anatomical factors that could be contributing. They may also need to observe your child during and after a feeding.

Adjusting your child’s behavior is often the best course of treatment. You may want to try the suggestions that WebMD suggests:

  • Altering your child’s posture during and after a meal
  • Giving him or her more attention during a feeding
  • Eliminating distractions while they eat and creating ways to make it a more pleasurable experience for them
  • Using distractions when rumination behavior starts

If you suspect your baby or toddler is suffering from this behavior, contact his or her physician for an appointment. The good news is that most babies outgrow the behavior and early intervention may prevent the behavior from becoming habitual.

We hope this article was helpful to you and that you are able to work with your child’s healthcare provider to find the exact cause of your child’s arching back symptom.

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