Grunting Baby Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

If your infant has ever made a sudden and unexpected noise, you probably jumped up and ran to them immediately. After all, hearing strange noises come from a newborn can make any parent expect and fear for the worst.

Grunting is perhaps one of the more worrisome newborn symptoms since it can indicate serious health problems – and give you one heck of a scare.

Although it’s relatively common, grunting baby syndrome stresses out many new parents who have never dealt with such a condition before.

Thankfully, the facts are rather clear about what the syndrome is and what it isn’t, when it’s something that solves itself on its own and whether or not parents should worry about it.

The following article discusses everything parents should know about grunting baby syndrome (also referred to as GBS), including which symptoms indicate a real emergency versus those which are harmless.

What Is Grunting Baby Syndrome?

If you notice your baby making grunting noises, turning purple, and straining their muscles, you’re completely right to feel anxious! In a newborn especially, seeing this strange mix of symptoms can cause alarm in parents.

But grunting baby syndrome, as experts call it, is most often harmless and indicates a natural progression in your baby’s development.

Not convinced? Here’s more about the causes behind this condition.

What Causes Grunting Baby Syndrome?

Most babies grunt as they learn to pass a bowel movement. This explains not only the odd noise but also the straining effort and the baby’s face turning red or even purple.

Because babies do not yet have strong stomach muscles to move stool through the gut, they use their diaphragm muscles to help.

Experts suggest babies are not born with the ability to pass stool and must learn how to do it with time. Thus, they struggle at first to regulate the function and will unnecessarily grunt and strain.

As babies grow and strengthen their stomach muscles, they tend to stop using the diaphragm and therefore stop grunting as much.

However, there are other causes of grunting apart from regular bowel movement activity.

For example, trapped mucus, gastroesophageal reflux, and irregular breathing can all cause grunting in babies. Babies who are dreaming can also involuntarily grunt in their sleep.

Important Note #1

Don’t panic right away if you notice your little one has irregular breathing. As long as they can breathe just fine without any trouble, there’s usually no cause for concern.

Parents should start to worry when their babies have trouble catching a breath.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “Grunting should be distinguished from nasal congestion, which sounds very noisy but is otherwise benign.

The medical term “grunting” means that accessory muscles are being used to force air in/out of the lungs, and this is a precursor to respiratory failure or serious respiratory compromise.”

Here is a link from Stanford Children’s Hospital that details symptoms that can occur with grunting or after it starts that can give parents an idea of when they should call a doctor:

Alternatively, here is one from CHOP:

Invest in a baby monitor to stay on top of the situation and always make sure your baby is breathing just fine. If they’re having difficulty breathing, you can step in and take action straight away.

You can also make use of a movement monitor that alerts you with an alarm sound when your baby hasn’t moved for a predetermined period of time (example: 15 seconds). If your baby stops moving for longer than usual, something may be wrong.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “Infant apnea monitors are only given to parents in situations where an infant had difficulty breathing in the neonatal period and required a NICU stay.

They are prescribed and have their data analyzed by a neonatologist. Apnea monitors are not something that can be purchase or that are recommended for normal, healthy babies.”

Important Note #2

Trapped mucus is also oftentimes nothing much for you to worry about. A nasal aspirator can clear things up and save the day most of the times.

In most infants, the grunting will subside in a few months or so. Premature babies may take longer to self-regulate, though.

Grunting Baby Syndrome Symptoms

Most babies make weird sounds, especially in the first few weeks after birth. It’s usually nothing to worry about, and is something all of us parents learn to get used to with time.

Initially, they may be expelling bits of amniotic fluid from their lungs. Hiccups are common as well.

However, babies tend to begin grunting at their first or subsequent bowel movement.

What Do Babies with Grunting Baby Syndrome Do?

Babies with this condition tend to grunt as they attempt to pass bowel movements. They may also strain for a few minutes, changing color in their face and body, and even cry.

They also usually look uncomfortable for around 5 to 10 minutes before passing any stool.

However, and contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t necessarily cause hard stools. On the contrary, babies who grunt typically produce soft stools.

Even if your baby grunts before filling her diaper, her behavior will likely be normal otherwise.

Even if she turns red or cries while pooping, she should usually return to her regular mood afterward. Babies who grunt due to physiological development reasons won’t have lasting effects from making bowel movements.

How Do I Know if My Baby Has Grunting Baby Syndrome?

In general, you can tell whether your little one has grunting baby syndrome based on his or her symptoms.

If there are no other symptoms except for grunting, it’s likely your infant is just learning to regulate his bowel movements. This is a normal part of their overall development in life.

For example, if your baby cries, scrunches up his face, and grunts right before making a smelly diaper, he’s likely healthy.

Grunting may sound like sniffing or even similar to a response to pain. Sometimes, it can sound like wheezing, but it depends on each baby and their breathing patterns.

Keep this in mind, however; “grunting baby syndrome” technically isn’t a diagnosis. Therefore, there is often no “fix” for the grunting, other than the passage of time and the infant learning to handle his own bowels.

If your infant breathes at the normal respiratory rate of 30 to 60 breaths per minute, this is one sign of a healthy newborn, regardless of a tendency to grunt.

When Should I See A Doctor?

While most babies grunt in one form or another, grunting with every breath is not normal. In fact, it could mean your baby is having trouble breathing.

If you notice your baby makes a grunting noise with each and every breath, you should see your doctor straight away.

Grunting in combination with weight loss, fever, lethargy, breathing pauses, lip color turns blue, tongue color turns blue or has bluish skin are also signs of serious respiratory problems, not simple grunting baby syndrome that resolves itself on its own with time.

If your baby has any of the above mentioned symptoms, or you notice other unusual symptoms going on at the same time, you should visit a physician as soon as possible.

According to Healthline, grunting with each breath can indicate problems such as:

  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Sepsis
  • Meningitis
  • Heart failure from fluid buildup in the lungs

All these conditions are extremely serious in a young infant and require immediate medical attention.

However, these do not form a true representation of the “grunting baby syndrome” condition, as the underlying cause is a separate condition itself.

Is It Dangerous If My Baby Grunts Alot?

In general, grunting baby syndrome in and of itself is not a dangerous condition.

In the absence of other respiratory symptoms, a baby who is grunting is likely only learning to regulate their bowel movements.

However – and as discussed above – in some cases where other unusual symptoms appear, babies with this issue may have serious health problems going on.

Grunting Baby Syndrome VS Constipation: Clearing Up A Common Misconception

One very common misconception among parents is confusing grunting baby syndrome with constipation.

The two are very different conditions, and this section serves to set the record straight for anyone mixing them up with one another.

While infants with grunting baby syndrome tend to produce soft bowel movements, a genuinely constipated baby will not.

A typical infant, whether breastfed or formula fed, will have soft, liquid, or seedy stools. In contrast, a baby with constipation will have diapers which look like they contain clay balls.

Babies with constipation may have hard tummies, blood in their stool, and even refuse to eat. If their insides are “backed up,” babies may not want to eat any more until they’ve successfully passed a bowel movement.

Grunting babies, on the other hand, tend to grunt for a short period of time directly before passing a bowel movement. They generally tend to relax afterwards, continue to eat regularly, and produce poop with a normal and runny texture.

Treating babies with constipation is different from addressing grunting baby syndrome. Babies who are constipated may need medication, stomach massage or stretching, or a dietary change.

Often, certain formula ingredients or items in a breastfeeding mom’s diet can affect her baby’s ability to pass stool. In those cases, in contrast with grunting baby syndrome, your infant may require intervention.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “It is important to mention that there are more serious causes of constipation in rare cases.

Constipation in these more serious cases are not responsive to the remedies mentioned in this section.

Here is a link to situations that require more detailed medical intervention:

When Does Grunting Baby Syndrome Require Intervention?

If you notice additional symptoms apart from grunting in your young infant, it’s best to see a medical professional as soon as possible. However, if your baby’s only symptom is grunting, there may be nothing to worry about.

If, however, the baby becomes and remains agitated, pauses between breaths, grunts at the end of every breath, flares his nostrils, or draws his chest in as he breathes – those are serious respiratory symptoms. Odds are, such symptoms are unrelated to bowel movement type grunting and require a professional exam and diagnosis immediately.

Often, medical professionals will use an X-ray to diagnose respiratory distress in your young baby. An X-ray may show signs of meningitis or other possible conditions which influence how the baby breathes.

Also, babies who grunt due to constipation may need help passing bowel movements. Doctors often prescribe low doses of products such as MiraLAX to help babies start passing regular stools.

However, you shouldn’t use these products with a baby who grunts but otherwise passes normal stool. You should also avoid giving an infant stool softeners or laxatives without a doctor’s supervision.

What Not to Do with Babies Who Grunt

Though grunting can be a sign of a baby’s immature muscle systems, there’s usually not a true “problem”. Over time, the baby will learn to use her stomach muscles – rather than the diaphragm – to push stool out.

In most cases, you don’t have to do anything for your infant except make sure to change them afterwards – keeping them fresh, clean and smelling nice.

However, some doctors or healthcare providers may suggest helping move things along artificially. For example, gently placing a thermometer in the baby’s anus can help create space for the stool to exit.

If you don’t feel like fiddling around that area with a thermometer, then applying a little bit of Vaseline on their anus can also work well for stimulation purposes.

With that being said, it’s important to keep in mind that bypassing a baby’s natural development can cause them to become constipated more frequently since they haven’t had the chance to learn how to poop on their own and fully rely on themselves for this purpose.

Similarly, products which aim to relieve constipation such as drops, liquids or powders will not help a baby with grunting baby syndrome. In fact, laxatives may cause diarrhea and even dehydration in an infant who does not have constipation.

A Quick Note About Gastro Esophageal Reflux (GER)

Oftentimes, a baby suffering from Gastro Esophageal Reflux (GER) will tend to grunt excessively. This is a condition where milk and stomach acid go back to your baby’s throat and cause discomfort.

Symptoms of GER include colic, excessive crying, vomiting and grunting.

Usually, nothing too overly complicated needs to be done to treat acid reflux. If breastfeeding, avoiding certain foods that pass through the breast milk and make acid reflux worse and adjusting the position you have baby lying in during feeding time often help solve the problem.

If formula feeding, you might need to look for another formula specifically designed for babies who have similar conditions.

Wrapping It Up

Overall, grunting baby syndrome can seem intimidating, especially to new parents or caregivers who haven’t experienced such a condition before with a previous child.

Thankfully though, it’s normally a non-issue for most babies. In extreme cases of infant grunting, there may be an underlying condition causing the baby’s grunts that needs to be addressed.

With that being said, true grunting baby syndrome is a passing condition which affects many babies without harming them.

In fact, you may never meet a doctor who will record it as a diagnosis. And as you will find when searching the term online, there are endless stories of parents with grunting babies who turned out perfectly healthy.

Over the long term, most infants need to learn to regulate their stools on their own and without your help. In time, they’ll stop grunting, crying, and turning red with the effort – no thanks to mom and dad!

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Medically Reviewed By: Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Medically Reviewed By: Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. After graduating from Kalamazoo College and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, she completed her pediatric residency at Overlook and Morristown Memorial Hospitals. She is board certified in General Pediatrics.

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