Parents worry, it’s what we do. It’s not all we do, of course. We also nurture, teach, feed and clean our little bundles of responsibilities. But the thing we do best is worry.
Babies are just plain inconsiderate when it comes to calming our nerves. Every other minute they do things, or don’t do things, which cause us to be concerned.
The most frustrating part is that they can’t simply tell us what they’re thinking and feeling. (Just think about it, the first effective baby translator will make trillions!).
Babies and infants often arch their backs, for reasons ranging from mundane to life threatening. It can be difficult to tell how serious, or not, this behavior is without more information.
That’s where we come in.
In this article, we describe the various causes of arched backs in babies, as well as their symptoms, treatment, and likelihood.
First, let’s go over a basic description of the behavior.
What Is Baby Back Arching?
Simply put, back arching is when your baby flexes their back muscles. It can be accompanied by neck muscle flexes as well, causing a full torso and head curve to form.
As anyone who has tried holding a leg down while changing a diaper knows, babies are able to flex their muscles with quite a bit of resistance.
Babies as young as one month of age will begin arching their back in a number of different situations.
Although the appearance may be very similar, the causation of each type of arching is unique.
The good news is there are plenty of perfectly normal reasons why this behavior occurs.
What Causes Babies To Arch Their Backs?
The following are six of the most common times babies will arch their backs.
Let’s get to this point right away.
For all you nervous new parents, know that infants get uncomfortable.
Yes, they may sleep through a vacuum running right next to them at certain times, but they may also decide all of a sudden that their outfit is entirely too scratchy, too warm, or too pink.
The room may be too cold. That cashier may be scary. You name it, your baby might not like it.
One of the ways they may show their dissatisfaction is by arching and wiggling all over the place.
Acid reflux or GERD is a prime example of why an infant arches his/her back. For more information about this issue, we talk about it in point #5 of this section.
Similar to discomfort, frustration is another regular cause of an arching baby.
At least with discomfort, you stand a good chance of identifying the culprit. With frustration, the reasoning could be anything.
I know, frustrating, right? Until babies learn verbal ways of communication, their tiny body language is all they have.
They will pitch, rock, arch, and scream until they get their point across to you.
The dreaded 3, 3, 3. Colic is a stressful condition when a baby cries steadily for at least three hours a day, on at least three days out of each week, and is under three months old.
Every parent and doctor you meet has a different theory on what causes colic, and they all may be correct to some extent.
The unfortunate truth of the matter is no one knows what makes babies cry so much with colic.
When in the midst of a prolonged session, generally happy and healthy babies will cry loudly and bend every possible way.
For the most part, the majority cases of colic self-resolve by the time your little one is 3 months old.
You can read more about this issue here.
4) Done Eating
Sometimes infants just need to make you understand when they are all done with a feeding.
How do they do this? When sticking their tongue out and turning their heads isn’t enough of a signal, infants often resort to more drastic measures.
They will arch their back away so fast they almost dive right out of your arms.
You need quick reflexes as a parent!
5) Acid Reflux
Whether it’s a chronic problem or a once in a while occurrence, babies can have problems keeping their meal down.
All babies will spit up, but acid reflux is when it happens frequently and causes distress.
An even more pronounced version of this is GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease), which is when the baby is so affected it refuses feedings and loses weight.
An underdeveloped lower sphincter muscle is usually to blame, which means the problem resolves itself over time.
Until that happens, babies might arch their back to stretch out their esophagus and help keep their meals from coming back up.
Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: The following resource from the American Academy of Pediatric’s information page is a good read on this subject.
It’s especially important because it discusses the differences between normal infant reflux and GERD.
Many parents don’t know the difference and don’t realized that “spit ups” without pain are normal.
The back arching is typical of painful reflux along with discomfort when lying in a supine position. This often requires medication to reduce or relieve symptoms.
In my clinical experience with GERD, some infants feed less, and others feed more frequently – but in small amounts. This frequent feeding is because they are trying to reduce the pain from stomach acids in the esophagus, but attempting to “wash it down.”
Reflux resolves when the lower esophageal sphincter tights when babies are between 6 to 12 months old.”
6) Ready To Roll
Last but not least in the category of common back arching causes in babies is a preliminary to bigger and better things.
Around the age of four to six months, your tiny tot will be ready for rolling over.
As they practice this most new and amazing ability, the baby will try out all sorts of different positions.
They will tuck, turn side to side, and stretch out backwards as they figure out the best way to start flipping onto their tummies.
Less Common But More Serious Causes Of Babies Arching Their Backs
The previous list gave you six very normal reasons why your baby may be arching their back. The vast majority of cases will either resolve themselves, be easily managed, or be treated with mild medication.
Hopefully one of them explains what is going on with your child’s behavior. If not, don’t worry. These next sections might contain information that will help you diagnose the problem better.
Some of the following eight causes for back arching are quite serious.
No matter what ends up being the underlying issue, learning more about it and then working with your pediatrician is always the better way forward. The more you know about what might be causing the problem, the better you’re able to help your little one.
This disorder is still not well understood. Its cause, definition, and symptoms are all hotly debated topics in the medical community.
More recently it has been described as autism spectrum disorder, which better illustrates the range of severity possible.
There are countless different early signs of autistic behaviors, and this article isn’t exactly the most suitable place to go over them right now.
However, many autistic infants shun physical contact. They way they do this can be to arch themselves back away from whoever is holding them at the time.
Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “In clinical practice, it is very difficult to diagnose Autism in children prior to 9-12 months old.
Parents should be sure to take their infant to all recommended well check ups so that developmental milestones can be assessed for signs of concern.
Here is another good resource from the AAP: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/Autism/Pages/Early-Signs-of-Autism-Spectrum-Disorders.aspx“
2) Cerebral Palsy
There are few disorders as debilitating as CP, but early diagnosis can be very difficult.
One way that doctors may be able to tell is through something called tonic labyrinthine reflex.
This is when your baby throws back their head and arches their back after they look up. The movement can be done repetitively, or only very seldom.
Since Cerebral Palsy includes numerous dramatic and clear signs, back arching may not be related in all cases.
Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “There is usually a reason for this, either something that occurred prenatally, during birth, or trauma after birth.
CP is not something that would all of a sudden show up as baby back arching and other behaviors.
Here is a helpful article from the CDC about this.”
While the two previous causes are hard to see signs of in infants, it’s easy to spot the warning signs when it comes to kernicterus.
This serious condition happens when new babies suffer from prolonged and severe jaundice. Jaundice is a common issue for newborns where an excess of a natural chemical called bilirubin causes the baby’s skin and whites of their eyes to turn yellow.
Although up to 60% or more of infants experience jaundice, it is very rare for kernicterus to develop from lack of treatment.
Once a baby reaches this point, brain damage has already begun, and one observed symptom is a severely arched body.
Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “It is important to note that this would only occur in the newborn/neonatal period.
Bilirubin levels are regularly monitored after an infant is born if the skin looks jaundiced, and treatment is initiated to prevent such an occurrence.
Honestly, if kernicterus occurs, it is most likely due to the infant being born in a situation where he/she is not receiving medical care, or due to medical negligence.”
Another disease which is usually caught when children are newborns is laryngomalacia.
Due to a genetic abnormality in the voice box, the airway of the child is partially blocked. This certainly sounds scary, but is usually not a dangerous problem.
Babies born with this abnormality are typically able to eat and drink normally, but they experience very noisy breathing.
By the time children are two years old, the airway tends to clear enough to eliminate any symptoms.
In the meantime, babies might arch their backs to help open their airway or to ease related reflux issues.
To learn more about this issue, check out this parent-friendly (yet very informative) article.
5) Nerve Injury
Nerve injuries are another possibility. When babies are in pain, they sometimes arch their backs as a reflex.
The birth process can be traumatic for a newborn’s body, and pinched nerves can be the result.
Any other trauma, such as a fall or abusive behavior, could just as easily cause some form of nerve damage.
If this is the case, your baby might be trying to communicate their pain through their movements.
6) Obstructive Sleep Apnea
This disorder can be terrifying, both for the child and the parent. Nothing scares you more than thinking your infant has stopped breathing, and with sleep apnea breathing really does stop for stretches of ten seconds or more.
The airway is completely blocked, making people startle themselves awake several times a night.
While obesity is usually the cause in adults, there is a range of other possible culprits in babies. Some common causes include enlarged tonsils, enlarged tongue, and other birth defects which affect the size or alignment of the upper airway.
Babies may forcibly arch their back to keep their airways open.
Keep note of any loud snoring or repeated startled awakenings that accompany the arching.
Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “Most of what is describe is seen in toddlers and older children, including what is stated in the CHOP article referenced.
Aside from in disorders like Pierre-Robin Syndrome, or Down Syndrome, infants don’t get obstructive sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea is typically what occurs due to brain immaturity. This also differs
from the phenomenon of periodic breathing, which is normal until the age of 6 months old.
Here are some articles that explain this:
Here is an article that discusses some of the developmental disorders that are associated with infants having obstructive apnea: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5448577/“
7) Rumination Disorder
Babies with rumination disorder regurgitate food from their stomach and rechew it in their mouth.
As gross as that sounds, it’s also very painful for the child. Think of it as a more intense version of acid reflux.
With all this painful burning of their esophagi, babies will understandably arch their backs in order to stretch out their throat and lessen the discomfort.
8) Sandifer Syndrome
Babies with Sandifer syndrome experience strained arching of their bodies which they hold for a couple of minutes before relaxing again.
At first, these children were assumed to be having a seizure, but this appears to be a distinct disorder. As opposed to the shaking or rhythmic movements of seizures, Sandifer causes the body to freeze in its arched position.
When Should I Seek A Doctor’s Help?
Now that we have a list of many possible reasons for babies to arch their back, what’s the next step?
Pay attention to what your child is trying to tell you.
By going through a quick and easy checklist of symptoms and possible treatments, you can figure out if the problem is treatable at home or serious enough to warrant a doctor’s visit.
Keep An Eye Out For Anything Unusual
You spend time with your baby more than anyone else, so your observations are crucial to understanding what is happening.
The first step in getting to the bottom of this is to keep a close eye on your little one and figuring out when anything goes wrong.
If your infant is arching their back, seems uncomfortable, and is difficult to console, consult a doctor as soon as possible.
Can You Treat This Yourself?
No one is suggesting you can find simple home remedies for serious medical conditions like cerebral palsy, autism, or nerve damage. However, there are plenty of ways you can try to comfort your child if the cause is something more commonplace.
The following are a few of the easiest ways to stop your baby from arching their back as much.
The best offense is a good defense. By figuring out the most likely times the arching occurs, you can take steps to prevent it.
If feeding seems to be causing it, you can try positioning your baby more upright to lessen reflux.
If putting them to sleep always triggers them, then check to make sure the crib sheets and pajamas are comfortable. Sometimes there can be broken bed springs, scratchy tags, or drooled upon wet spots which can drive your baby crazy.
The more things you can eliminate as reasons, the more likely you are to figure out the true cause.
In many cases, arching can be a matter of dealing with fear, frustration, or boredom.
Test to see if your baby is responding to an unfamiliar person or noisy situation.
Find a nice quiet spot to snuggle them and see if the behavior stops.
Maybe they’re playing with a new toy but can’t quite get it right. Give your baby their favorite stuffed animal toy, and the arch might stop right away.
Or perhaps your little one needs some extra attention. Give them some one on one time and their antsy arching may vanish.
Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “Always remember that an infant should not sleep with a stuffed toy, and these items should be kept out of the crib during sleep to avoid SIDS.”
3) Get Comfy
Paying close attention to your baby will give you a better idea about how to comfort them.
Are they too hot? Too chilly? Too full? Still hungry? Give an extra dose of comfiness and observe how your baby reacts.
Time To Visit The Pediatrician
As every parent learns, trying to figure out why your infant does anything can be an epic challenge.
They don’t know what’s happening to them, they don’t know why, and even if they knew they can’t tell you anyway.
Over time, you get better at trusting your instincts about when something is wrong.
Deciding when to go see a doctor is always a tough thing to do. My personal rule of thumb is “if you don’t know, then you know.”
This means when you don’t know what’s going on with your baby and you’re concerned enough to consider going to the doctor, then you probably should go.
Wrapping It Up
Hopefully this article has relieved some of your worrying by providing a list of common causes for babies and infants to arch their backs.
Discomfort, whether from reflux or any other reason, is likely to blame.
If something more serious seems to be the cause, then at least you will be better prepared to deal with whatever steps or treatments come next.
For instance, the effects of autism or cerebral palsy can be lessened by getting an early diagnosis. Physical and behavioral therapy sessions have been shown to improve the quality of life for those who get an early start on treatment.
Other causes, such as laryngomalacia or obstructive sleep apnea, may resolve themselves naturally after a couple of years as your baby develops. During that time, knowing what is giving your child discomfort can allow you to help them get better.
Knowing a reason, even one that you are unable to fix, can at least prevent you from worrying about the unknown.
So keep giving your little one plenty of love, because they need that no matter what else is going on in their lives at the moment!