Before they get to the point of talking to tell us what they need, babies have to get creative when it comes to communicating with us. And this means using a variety of different — sometimes disturbing — types of movements and body language. For parents, particularly first-timers who may not be fluent in baby body language, there can be a bit of an adjustment period. Sure, it’s easy to be calm when your baby is napping away peacefully, or cooing contently as they’re being held. But when they start to do things like arch their backs — especially while crying, sleeping, or being held — it’s natural to worry.
The good news is it’s nothing to worry about most of the time, and it’s another example of how we can learn more about a baby’s needs based on how they move their body. In some cases, though, it can signal a more serious health condition. Here’s what to know about babies arching their backs, including why it happens, what to do, and when to worry.
Possible causes of back arching in babies
From the time they’re newborns, infants are pretty good at arching their backs — as if they were doing months of in-utero yoga (which may be what it felt like). And whether your baby is arching their back when they’re crying, lying down, sleeping, or being held, each can provide clues as to what they’re trying to tell us about their needs, mood, or discomfort. Here are some of the reasons why your baby is arching their back.
It’s one thing for a baby to be squirmy, but it’s another when they arch their back with all their might and look like they’re in distress. It may look dramatic, but it’s also a common way for babies to communicate. Maybe they don’t want to be held or fed at a particular moment, so they put their unusually strong back muscles to work and let you know that they’re not into it. It can also be an early version of a temper tantrum. But, it can also mean that they’re tired, hungry, or want to be held. No, your baby is not gaslighting you with mixed messages; it’s just one of their only communication options at the beginning.
If your infant is feeling a little gassy or has an upset stomach, sometimes they’ll arch their backs. It could help them feel more comfortable by stretching out their stomachs and tiny digestive systems. They might do this after feeding, when trying to poop, or while lying down (same, tbh).
If your baby arches their back while crying for what seems like endless periods of time for no obvious reason, it could be a sign of colic.
It’s common and completely normal for babies to have some form of acid reflux, and arching their backs is one of the trademark signs — especially if they do it while they’re sleeping.
Also known as the Moro reflex, babies may arch their backs when they’re startled. This typically lasts until they’re between two and four months old.
As your baby gets used to tummy time, they’ll realize that they now have another viewpoint of the world, and start exploring. One way they do this is by arching their backs so they can look around and see more of the action.
More serious but less common causes
Because baby back arching is totally normal, it’s more often than not nothing to worry about and will go away on its own. But there are some situations where arching their backs could be a sign or symptom of a more serious condition — though before jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst, you should try some of the soothing methods below. And as always, talk to your doctor if you’re worried about anything to do with your baby’s health. Plus, keep in mind that back arching is usually one of many symptoms in these more serious causes, so it’s important to pay attention to their other health signals.
Here are some examples of other conditions that could prompt a baby to arch their back:
- Rumination syndrome
- Sleep apnea
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Nerve damage
- Newborn jaundice
- Cerebral palsy
- Sandifer syndrome
- Infantile spasms
What to do when a baby arches their back
Given that arching their back can mean many different things coming from a baby, there’s no one-size-fits-all remedy to fix it. How you help your baby depends on the underlying cause of the back arching. Here are a few of the simplest ways to address infant back-arching:
- Console and comfort them
- Reposition them
- Cuddle them
- Distract them from what’s bothering them
If you suspect gas or baby reflux, you can also try the following:
- Propping them upright after feeding
- Avoiding overfeeding
- Feeding them smaller portions more frequently
- Using a smaller bottle and nipple size to minimize their air intake as they feed
When to worry about baby back arching
Fortunately, your baby’s back arching will most likely resolve on its own as your baby grows stronger. They’ll gain more control over their own body, ultimately learning to roll over and outgrow the startle reflex.
But if the methods above aren’t working, or are accompanied by other symptoms, it’s time to call your doctor so they can try to determine whether something more serious is going on. When it comes to baby reflux, gas, or other digestive issues, these could be signs that normal back-arching has crossed a line:
- Crying for 3 or more hours
- Appearing as though they’re in pain
- Throwing up every time you feed them
- Being irritable during feeding
- Refusing to eat
- Not gaining weight, or losing weight
- Not wetting their diaper
If you’re concerned that your baby’s back arching is somehow connected to brain or nerve damage, here are other signs to look for:
- Muscle spasms
- Jerking movements
- Odd head or neck posture
- Trouble swallowing
- Weak sucking
- A high-pitched cry
- Sudden difficulty latching or feeding
- Bulging or swollen soft spots on the head
One potential condition that would represent more problematic back arching is kernicterus. Caused by excessive bilirubin secretion, kernicterus can cause brain damage. Since liver problems — such as jaundice — may make bilirubin levels spike, keep on your baby’s skin tone and the whites of their eyes for signs of yellowing. In a worst-case scenario situation, kernicterus causes uncontrollable and painful convulsions (leading to your baby’s arching back).
Again, in most cases, a baby arching their back is normal and nothing to worry about. But as always, let your doctor know if you have any concerns about their health or development. And try not to stress too much, Mama!
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