Why Do Babies Arch Their Backs and What to do About It?

As a new mother, you will experience a lot of things for the first time while caring for your young one, and it can be quite challenging to understand what the baby needs. Since crying is the first thing they do to express almost everything, it takes a while to understand their subtle clues. Are they crying because they are hungry? Or are they in pain? Or do they need a diaper change because they’re uncomfortable?

Why do they move their arms in a certain way? It takes a while to learn to pick up on what your baby is experiencing. One such common action parents come across is baby arching back unexpectedly while you are feeding, carrying them around or playing with them. For first time parents, this behaviour can be quite confusing as much as it is surprising. There are several reasons why babies arch their back, while some of them are quite normal and harmless, others are not.

What is baby arching back and is it normal?

As babies gain more control over the muscles of their neck and back, they occasionally arch backwards, while raising their hands. Arching the back is part of their body language which is indicative of something they are trying to convey to you by the unusual display. Babies start arching their back around 6 to 9 months of age to indicate their irritability to communicate something. According to pediatricians, almost all babies go through this phase to indicate to their parents that they are frustrated. Most often it is a sign of discomfort which is being expressed, and in some cases, it could be a sign of physical disorders or developmental impairments that is neurological.

What is baby arching back and is it normal?

Reasons why babies arch their backs

With most babies who arch their backs, the reasons are quite simple and include frustration and uncontrollable emotions. It may get tricky to figure out what has upset them. It might be something as trivial as handing them the wrong toy or singing them the wrong song. However, when babies’ arching back and crying turn out to be frequent, it could be the sign of something more serious.

Here are 10 reasons you need to know babies arch back often:

1. Gastroesophageal Reflux

Commonly known as acid reflux, it is a problem many are familiar with. It occurs when the stomach pours back food and digestive acids into the esophagus due to improper functioning of the lower esophageal sphincter. The sphincter is a bundle of muscle at the junction where stomach and esophagus meet. It acts like a valve to stop contents of the stomach moving into the food pipe. Since babies have underdeveloped sphincters, they often have refluxes when they are overfed or gassy. This causes them to arch back and throw up as a natural reaction to the reflux. Babies’ arching back while eating is also an indicator of silent reflux, wherein your baby won’t throw up but still have reflux.

2. Kernicterus

Kernicterus is a rare condition involving preventable brain damage that happens in newborns affected by jaundice. Jaundice affects about 60 – 80% of infants and is characterized by yellow coloration of the skin. Kernicterus occurs when there is an excessive build up of a chemical called bilirubin in their blood. The condition generally resolves on its own in most babies. However, when the bilirubin level in the blood stays too high and isn’t treated on time, jaundice turns into Kernicterus which causes brain damage. Therefore when you see jaundice affected newborn arch back, it is an indicator of kernicterus and the seizures associated with it.

3. Obstructive Sleep Apnea

If you notice your baby arching back in sleep or while resting on their back, it could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea. When you adjust their position in sleep, they move back to the arched position or suddenly wake up and start crying. This disorder affects your child’s breathing partially or entirely during the sleep by blocking the flow of air. It occurs due to narrowed upper airway or a blockage in it. The blockage is temporarily alleviated by arching back, and hence you see them doing it to get a smoother airflow in the lungs. It predominantly occurs during sleep and needs corrective surgery for treatment.

4. Nerve Injuries

Nerve injuries caused by premature birth or due to physical trauma during difficult deliveries can cause babies to arch back while they are sitting or when tired. Babies who are teething also arch their back due to irritation in the nerves caused within the gums. This pain often radiates to other parts of the head and neck which prompts them to arch out of reflex. There is a range of other neurological disorders due to which babies arch their backs.

5. Cerebral palsy

Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that affects children’s muscles and in turn their motor functions. Infants with cerebral palsy will seem to arch their back uncontrollably and involuntarily and not seem to be able to stop it. Prolonged back arching that looks very unusual can be an early sign of this condition. Cerebral palsy is a range of muscular movement disorders that are caused by damage to the part of the brain that controls movement. Two movements are specifically associated with cerebral palsy:

  • Tonic labyrinthine reflex: The baby arches its back and stiffens the legs during the first few months.
  • Asymmetrical tonic reflex: This is characterized by the baby arching back and turning their heads. The legs usually flex to the side in which the head is turned.

6. Autism

Autism is a genetic disorder that causes stunted neurological development. Autism doesn’t mean that the children will have retarded cognitive abilities but that they will have a distinct behavior. An early sign of autism is infants arching their backs when they are held, or sleeping on one side with the head arched back. Since autism is characterized by individuals who have trouble with developing sound social relationships, babies who have it would arch their backs when held to avoid physical contact. They may also do that when upset as a way to retaliate. However it’s important to remember that arching back isn’t the first or only sign of the condition, it has to match with several other symptoms.

7. Asperger Syndrome

Asperger syndrome is one among the spectrum of autistic disorders. It is characterized by problems with verbal and non-verbal communication such as facial gestures and eye contact and difficulty in building social bonds. Babies with this condition will also arch their backs in avoidance and tantrums. Although it is similar to autism in many ways, its prognosis is less severe.

8. Infantile Spasms

Seizures and spasms can also cause babies to arch their backs for prolonged times. If you observe that their body is still along with an arched back and they do not seem to be in control of it, it is likely to be an infantile spasm. The condition is a disorder of the nervous system that causes them to have involuntary contractions that also manifests as arched backs.

9. Colic

If your baby cries for extended periods for apparently no reason and won’t stop despite your best efforts, it could be colic. Some other characteristics of this contrition are clenched fists, arched backs and legs drawn up to their chest. It is unclear what causes colic, and many babies get it. It is typical of newborns and goes away sometime around 3 months. If your baby arches back because of colic, there is no need to worry about it. Follow the pediatricians’ advice on how to comfort them.

10. Expressing emotions

Babies commonly cry when their senses are overwhelmed after a long day of outing or visits by people. They cry to express it or throw themselves backwards and arch their backs. The only way out of stopping your baby from throwing a temper tantrum is to carefully tread around things that annoy them and keep them calm.

What can you do to stop your baby from arching its back?

1. Place them in the right position

The type of surface you lay them down affects their position and their tendency to arch their backs. Placing your baby on a flatter surface such as on a bed or a couch which can support their back helps to keep their backs straight. Sit them up right while you feed them or keep their shoulders as elevated as you can to avoid the food being spit up. If you notice that your baby arches his or her back more on a particular surface such as a sofa or fluffy beds, change it to something more flat-surfaced.

2. Cuddle them more often

Babies who arch their back because of frustration can do well if you shower them with more love and affection. Being cuddled helps them feel relaxed and secure, this means they are less likely to arch their back to get attention or express annoyance. However, keep in mind that babies with Autism Spectrum Disorder might not like to be cuddled or held for too long unlike other babies

3. Choose comfortable clothing

Your baby’s clothing affects their physical comfort to a great extent. Tight clothing can restrict their movement and bear down on their tummies leading to problems such as acid reflux and discomfort causing them to squirm and arch. Soft, comfortable clothing that is not restrictive is the key to keeping their movements free. Your baby may dislike the texture of the fabric or feel uncomfortable by tags, so watch closely if they show dislike. Dress them in fabrics suited for the weather; airy cotton and linen work for summer and plush woollen clothes are ideal in the colder seasons.

4. Avoid overfeeding

Keep your baby’s meals to small portions frequently served instead of overfeeding them a few times a day. Stuffed tummy leads to spitting up and acid reflux, therefore feed them small amounts spread over a few hours. Avoid putting them for a nap soon after a meal. Instead carry them around and play with them for an hour or so before sending them to bed. Also, it is observed that many babies arch their back when they are sent to bed soon after feeding.

5. Calm them down

Calming your baby down regularly reduces stress and their tendency to arch. Since babies have a fragile temperament, even the slightest change or discomfort can cause mood changes and frustration. Rock them often in your arms and play soothing music or talk to them in a calm, comforting voice. You can also give them warm baths when they are stressed and hold them to your chest when they are stressed. The sound of your heartbeat and the warmth gives them the same sense of comfort they had when they were still in the womb.

6. Distract them to break the habit

Distracting your baby when their arch their backs is an effective way to stop them in the act and avoid it from becoming a habit-forming pattern. When they do it, distract their mind toward an activity, a fun game or take them outside. If the need arises, let them take a nap as well. These techniques can soothe babies who are in emotional distress and is a sure way to stop them from arching.

Conclusion

Babies who are over 6 to 9 months old tend to arch their backs for a variety of reasons. As they are unable to communicate with words and are left with only their physical movements, a back arch can become a common denominator many of their expressions. Since this is a common phase many babies go through, parents have to exercise caution if their babies habitually arch their backs and thrown themselves back while being carried. Arching the back can also be a symptom of a range of disorders that children are faced with. When you suspect any of the problems mentioned above, schedule a visit to the pediatrician immediately.

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