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What to Know About Back Arching in Babies

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 24, 2021

If you've noticed your baby arching their back while nursing, taking a bottle, or crying, you may feel concerned about the behavior. While it's a normal response for your baby, back arching may indicate a health condition that needs to be addressed.

Understanding Newborn Communication

Your baby can't communicate using words, so they often use body language instead. You may think that your baby is communicating dislike of something by arching their back, and sometimes they are. You may notice your baby's back arched when they seem hungry, frustrated, or are in pain. This natural response usually goes away at around nine months when your baby begins to communicate in new ways.

But an arched back might also be a sign of a health condition. If you notice back arching a few times, it's not a major worry. If your baby arches their back frequently, talk to your pediatrician about potential developmental concerns. As your baby grows, understand the reasons for back arching so that you can identify accompanying symptoms that may point to a health condition or developmental delays.

Signs of Colic

Your baby may arch their back if they suffer from colic, a health condition affecting as many as one in five babies during the first three months of life. Usually, you can determine why your baby's crying or upset. With colic, you may feed your baby, check their diaper, burp them, and they'll still keep crying. If your baby does have colic, you'll begin to notice a distinguishable pattern of crying. 

Don't worry too much about colic. While it may cause distress for both you and your baby, colicky babies are otherwise healthy. They grow and develop as you would expect. A colicky baby is usually happier during the day, with fussiness getting worse toward the evening and night. Colic crying may last for several hours before your baby tires and falls asleep. Signs that your baby has colic include:

  • Having a high-pitched cry
  • Crying that sounds like screaming
  • Being difficult to soothe
  • Inability to calm down
  • Having their face turn red while their lips remain pale 
  • Bending knees up, stiffening arms, arching back, or clenching fists

Signs of Reflux

Reflux happens when your baby spits up frequently. This occurs because food moves back up instead of going further through the digestive tract. It's common for babies to spit up several times a day in the first months of life. As long as your baby is growing and developing, it isn't a major concern.

If reflux extends beyond the first few months of life or is persistent, it's called gastroesophageal reflux (GER). Even though it may be concerning, this condition is not serious and usually becomes less intense as your baby grows, ending at around 18 months.

But if your baby is unusually fussy, isn't gaining weight, or shows other symptoms that worry you, talk to your doctor. It may be caused by an allergy, intestinal blockage, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Signs of Cerebral Palsy

If your baby arches their back frequently without a clear reason, like in their sleep, it may be a sign of cerebral palsy. This condition affects your child’s ability to control and coordinate their muscles, impacting overall movement. Infants with cerebral palsy may also have intellectual disabilities, seizures, and difficulties with vision and hearing. 

Other signs of cerebral palsy in infants include: 

  • Developmental delays – Your baby may not meet milestones as expected. These include sitting up, rolling over, crawling, and walking. As your infant becomes a toddler, they may not talk as early as babies the same age.
  • Low muscle tone – Your baby may seem floppy or weak with bad posture. Your baby may not hold their head up independently as expected, and their arms and legs may be very flexible. 
  • Increased muscle tone – Babies with stronger muscle tone tend to arch their back and stiffen their arms and legs. Instead of seeming floppy, your baby may seem excessively rigid and inflexible. 
  • Trouble speaking and swallowing – When it’s time to begin introducing solid food, your baby may not have proper mechanics for moving food to the back of the mouth to swallow. Your baby may also drool longer and have trouble controlling their tongue and mouth. 
  • Using one side of the body – When your baby begins to sit up, play, and crawl, they may show severe preference to one side of their body. They may reach with only one hand and crawl with one side. Once they begin to walk, they may have a limp. 

Signs of cerebral palsy often become more obvious with age. If you identify the health condition sooner, it may lead to better outcomes later on in life. Treatment options for cerebral palsy include medication, therapy, and possibly surgery, depending on the severity of the condition.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Cerebral Palsy.”

Kid’s Health: “Colic.”

Mayo Clinic: "Infant Reflux."

‌New Kids Center: "Baby Arching Back."

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