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Why is my Baby Arching Back?

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve seen your baby arching their back. Their back (or more specifically spine) is in a strange and often uncomfortable looking way. You may be wondering what’s going on and why it’s happening. Read on to find out more about this behaviour, what you can do about it, and whether or not you should seek a professional medical opinion or not.

Before you begin reading this article on baby arching back please remember that this should not be used as medical advice and you should always do what you feel is best with advice of medical professionals. If in doubt, call your GP or visit your local health service.

As parents to young babies, and especially as first time parents, we often find ourselves overanalysing every sound and action our baby makes. When it comes to smiles, coos and giggles we absolutely love it. Our babies can not communicate with us, so when they display a positive sign it’s fabulous and reassuring. However, when they are expressing odd behaviour or they seem in distress then that’s when we begin to worry.

Table of Contents

What is a baby arched back?

The description of baby arching back is when they are bending in such a way that there is a clear arch in their back which looks unnatural and almost as if the baby is straining or stretching. The picture below is one example, however your baby may also arch back while being held, or you have a baby arching back and crying.

Baby-Arching-Back

In general, an infant is usually arching their back in this way for a reason and it would generally be accompanied by other actions, such as wriggling, or making noises and crying. You may want to seek medical advice if your baby appears to be in this position without any other activity.

Is it normal for a baby to be arching their back?

Normal behaviour for a baby is difficult if not impossible to define! Every baby is completely different – even for parents of multiple children they will all comment on how each differed as a baby. They are, at the end of the day, individuals with their own personalities and traits. 

However, in the context of infant back arching, we would probably say that while an arched back is not uncommon and usually is not a reason for concern, it is not normal behaviour for a happy baby. A baby or newborn arching back is usually a  symptom of another issue that your little one is trying to communicate to you. 

In this section we discuss the different reasons why a baby may be arching their back and at the end we’ll list some things to consider to try and solve the problem.

Again, we at Best For Mums want to reiterate that this should not be used under any circumstances as medical advice – so please consult a medical professional if you have genuine concerns.

In what way can babies arch their back?

This is a list of time when babies have been observed arching their backs:

  • Baby arching back while lying down
  • Baby arching back while wriggling
  • Baby arching back while sleeping
  • Baby arching back and crying
  • Baby arching back when held
  • Baby arching back after feeding
  • Baby bends head backwards
  • Baby throwing head back when upset

In our opinion from speaking with mothers who have experienced this and doing research online, the most common time a baby will have an unnatural arch in their back is when they’re lying down and crying with what looks like discomfort.

Are any of these familiar? Does your baby arch their back in a different way that we haven’t mentioned? Why not let us know in the comments so that we can keep this article up to date.

Most common causes of a baby arching back

This is the section most people are probably looking for. Perhaps you’ve got a baby who is exhibiting this behaviour and you’re really worried it could be something serious. 

Well, try not to worry. In an overwhelming amount of cases babies arching their back was a short phase they went through with no serious issues. Many issues which resulted in their baby arching back could be solved without any medical intervention at all which is why we say not to worry. 

However, there are some more serous but less likely causes of infant back arching, which we will look at in more detail in the next section. First, let’s start with the most common causes.

1. Frustration

One of the most common reasons a baby may arch their back is because of frustration. Perhaps your baby is uncomfortable and wants something such as food, sleep, a change of nappy or just a change of scenery. They are really trying to communicate but can’t get the message across and they struggle to deal with that frustration properly which results in an over the top reaction such as arching back and crying.

Babies arching their back is probably not their first sign of frustration, it’s likely that they’ve been frustrated for a while but their needs have not been met. However, as most of us can’t yet read our baby’s mind (wouldn’t that be nice!), we shouldn’t feel too bad as it’s common for babies to get frustrated. 

How to help at home: Comfort and console, while trying to figure out what might be frustrating your little one so you can meet their need.

When to call a doctor: You generally would not need to seek medical help if frustration is the reason for your baby arching back.

2. Colic

Every parent will have heard about what colic is and how it can make babies feel. It’s a somewhat common occurrence for babies who are less than 3 months old and particularly in bottle fed babies (although there is still no proven cause). 

Arching their backs is just one of a few different reactions newborns can have along with clenched fists and drawing their legs up to their tummy and of course prolonged tummy. This isn’t the article to give an in-depth explanation to colic and how to treat it, however what’s clear is that colic is a very uncomfortable thing to go through and a newborn arching back can be a natural response to try and deal with it.

If your baby is visually uncomfortable which may or may not include arching their back while crying for more than 3 hours a day, 3 days a week for 3 weeks in a row and they’re not suffering from a fever, vomiting and diarrhoea then the most likely cause is colic.

How to help at home: As there is no proven cause to colic, there is no simple treatment to relieve the symptoms. However, there are a number of things that you can try, such as cuddling and soothing your baby, bathing them in warm water, distract them with gentle white noise, feeding as normal and winding afterwards, or taking them in the pram.

When to call a doctor: Generally, your baby does not need to see a doctor for colic, although you can talk to your health visitor for some help. However, do reach out to your doctor if you’re worried about your baby’s crying, isn’t eating or putting on weight, or is still showing signs of colic after 4 months.

3. Acid Reflux

It is very common for babies to bring up their milk, especially when they’re bottle fed and parents shouldn’t be concerned when it happens. However, acid reflux or GER (gastroesophageal reflux) is not so common and can cause a baby severe discomfort which can result in them crying and/or arching their back as a coping method for the pain. 

baby arching back refluxGER usually presents itself as vomiting repetitively while bringing up more than milk, such as the stomach acid (which is what causes the discomfort). Sometimes, though, a baby can have silent reflux where they don’t vomit but swallow it back down into the stomach.

Along with an arched back, acid reflux can be accompanied by a lack of appetite, coughing and wheezing, heartburn and regurgitation. The key symptom to look for isn’t an arched back but the frequent vomiting – if you notice your baby arching back and crying but not vomiting frequently then it’s less likely to be acid reflux.

The cause of acid reflux in babies is usually an undeveloped gastrointestinal tract which will often correct itself with time and natural growth. Our best advice, as always, is to seek qualified medical advice on how to treat this.

How to help at home: To help relieve symptoms, including baby arching back and crying after feeding, you can try to keep your baby upright for 30 minutes after feeding. In addition, providing smaller, more frequent feeds can sometimes help.

When to call a doctor: If you suspect reflux, you should contact your doctor to confirm and get advice on treatment. They may be able to prescribe medicine or special formulas to help.

4. Gas

When babies eat, they also swallow air and this air can get trapped in their tummies, causing discomfort. The baby’s cry is their way of trying to release the gas. Arching their back and kicking their legs also helps them to expel the gas.

Sometimes, gas can be mistaken as colic as it can cause so much discomfort that a baby cries for long periods of time. However, it is important to note that even babies who aren’t colicky can have gas pains from time to time (just as adults can as well!). And when they do, you may see your baby arching back and crying to try to stretch their tummies and relive they pain.

How to help at home: To avoid your baby getting gassy, be sure to burp them during and after feeding and try a slow-flow bottle nipple. Other ways to help relieve symptoms of gas are to massage your baby’s tummy in a clockwise motion, or try gas drops or probiotics. 

When to call a doctor: If your baby isn’t feeding as normal, is vomiting or is screaming in pain while crying.

5. Startle Reflex

The Moro reflex is baby’s natural response to feeling like they are falling. It is also known as the startle reflex and is most common in the first few months. You may see your newborn arching back, throw their arms and legs out, and cry when they are startled. They may also shiver like a chill.

This may happen while you are putting your infant to bed, or even while they are sleeping. 

The reflex usually goes away by 4-6 months old, but some babies may have it until they are a year old.

How to help at home: Swaddling is often recommending during sleep to help reduce the impact of the Moro reflex while sleeping.

When to call a doctor: If you notice your baby doesn’t have normal reflexes, or it’s only present on one side.

6. Exploring and strengthening muscles

As your baby spends more and more on their tummy, they will build and strengthen their back and neck muscles.

They can now lift their heads to look around and explore more of the world around them. How exciting! You may now see them arching back during tummy time or when lying on their side as they try to get into a better position to see everything. 

How to help at home: Keep going with tummy time to help them continue to build their muscles.

When to call a doctor: bring it up with your health visitor if you’re concerned about any development milestones or are having trouble with tummy time.

More serious, but less common causes of baby back arching

If you’ve ruled out any of the above causes of your infant back arching, then it’s possible that there is a less common cause of the behaviour. We would encourage you to seek further medical advice if you think your baby has any of these conditions.

Before you see the doctor, it is helpful to document your observations and concerns. Providing your doctor with photos and notes related to the symptoms, outlining specific questions, and highlighting solutions you’ve already tried can help with diagnosis and treatment.

7. Autism

Some studies have suggested that if a baby arches back when held, cuddled or picked up, then this (along with a wide variety of other symptoms) could be an early sign of autism.

For very young babies this sign could be meaningless as it is their social and language skills that are better indicators of autism. However, if you notice your baby arching their back when they are being cuddled or in social situations, we feel the next best step is to take a closer look at the way they are in other social situations and take it from there.

8. Kernicterus/Jaundice

Jaundice in newborns is fairly common (around 3 in 5 babies have it) and is usually resolved through regular feedings. However, untreated jaundice can cause a condition called kernicterus which leads to brain damage. Kernicterus can cause babies to arch their backs and cry as a direct result of brain damage. 

baby arching back jaundiceIf a baby has severe jaundice it can lead to increased bilirubin in the body, resulting in yellowing skin, and can cause brain damage. This can sadly result in uncontrollable convulsions and, yep you guessed it, an arched back as they deal with the pain and frustration. 

Granted, if your baby did have jaundice you would know about it long before and after they arch their backs. So if they are arching their backs and don’t have jaundice then it’s not going to be caused by kernicterus.

This is an issue which is more prevalent for newborns and younger babies as this is the most common time to have jaundice. Your health visitor should be making regular checks for jaundice during their visits but if you do have concerns then seek medical help immediately.

9. Rumination disorder

Rumination disorder is quite a rare eating disorder which usually occurs in infants between 3 months old and 12 months old. It is a term to describe a baby constantly regurgitating food from the stomach and then rechewing the same food. 

It is a rather disturbing disorder to say the least which can lead to highly unusual physical movements such as an arching back, straining and baby bends head backward. Additional symptoms include what you’d expect with a baby with an eating disorder – weight loss, bad breath, stomach aches and raw, chapped lips.

The most common causes of rumination disorder are things you will have spotted way before you notice the arched back. Emotional neglect is one of the leading causes as it leads to stress, anxiety and depression and forces a way for the baby to self-comfort (chewing). Chances are if your baby was suffering from rumination disorder you probably wouldn’t be on this website right now.

10. Sleep apnea

If you have a baby arching head back while sleeping or arching back and crying at night and sometimes waking up violently crying then perhaps they may be suffering from sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is an obstruction in the upper respiratory and arching their back is a way to relieve it. This is an involuntary act to allow smooth breathing during deep sleep.

You can actually see this sort of behaviour in adults who may have untreated sleep apnea.

Anyway, If you see a distinct arched back and tilted head by your little one during sleep then sleep apnea is the most likely cause. This can and should be treated by a medical professional with either medication or surgery, so see your local GP or health visitor if you have concerns.

11. Nerve Damage

Nerve damage as a cause for an arched back is a tricky one as nerve damage can cause all sorts of problems big and small. Plus, nerve damage is not the sort of thing that can happen without you knowing about it. 

A difficult birth is the most common cause of nerve damage. Was your baby born face first or by having its arms or legs pulled? It could be the reason for nerve damage and the physical effects that follow from that such as an arched back or difficulty maintaining proper posture. The pressure of the difficult birth can cause a lot of physical problems early on and one of those is an arched back which can be spotted when they are sitting up.

If you remember having a difficult birth and you notice these symptoms now then contact your local health professional as soon as possible as early treatment can be crucial to resolving the problem.

12. Cerebral palsy

If your baby seems to be arching their back without trying to do it themselves then this could be caused by a neurological condition called cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy leads to a number of neurological and motor function problems and your baby may find it difficult to move normally and often their body may move involuntarily and unnaturally.

Cerebral palsy is a condition which is commonly caused during a difficult childbirth and it is unlikely that you won’t have been aware of your baby having cerebral palsy before you start seeing arched backs. However, you can use this knowledge to understand that if your baby has cerebral palsy and an arched back that is likely the cause and not any of the other points in this article.

The Bottom Line

It’s very rare for a baby arching back to be anything serious and our advice for you on the matter is to not worry and relax. Everyone knows that seeking medical advice online can often lead to unnecessary stress and that goes for our article, too! 

However, it’s fair to say that babies arching their backs regularly is not normal and if you do see it happen on a regular basis then it’s time to close your computer and seek qualified medical advice.

If you’ve experienced a baby with an arched back and crying why not let other mothers reading this article know by writing your experiences in the comments below.

6 Comments

  • Avatar of Sam
    Sam
    Posted 31 December 2019 at 10:18 am

    My 7 week old son is often arching his back and looking as far back as he can get his eyes to go. He also seems to have trouble looking at people in the eyes? Not sure if that’s normal for a 7 week old but it concerns me. He also is having quite a bit of trouble going poop? His poop is quite hard and it gets too big for him to poop on his own. I end up giving him suppositories otherwise he would be in too much pain. I’m wondering if he possibly has colic? I try to interact with him as much as possible but he hasn’t really had a social smile yet and he’s been crying all day and night lately. Don’t know if it’s normal, but it is all quite worrying and stressful

    • Avatar of Sarah
      Sarah
      Posted 12 January 2020 at 11:46 pm

      Hi Sam,

      It sounds like your son has severe gastrointestinal distress. He definitively has colic based on your description of his arched back and hard stool.
      Please see a pediatrician who specializes in gastrointestinal/motility disorders as your son’s symptoms appear to exceed diet-related issues alone. Do not change his diet until you see a specialist and are advised on what to do.
      Best of luck.

      Sarah

  • Avatar of Yasser
    Yasser
    Posted 15 January 2020 at 4:18 pm

    Hello,
    My 5 months old daughter frequently arches her back and cries even sometimes when carried but looks to be in control of her actions. Also when she does that i change the way i carry her or play with her and she calms down for a while. After i read your article I feared for the thought of cerebral palsy but i looked for signs like floppiness and getting her head up while lying on her stomach but she seems normal. Am I paranoid?

  • Avatar of Cayla
    Cayla
    Posted 5 October 2020 at 12:28 pm

    My baby arches her back when trying to burp her via shoulder or sitting. It feels as if she is fighting me; she is definitely not relaxed at all. I’m struggling with this type of behavior as im used to handling more relaxed babies.

  • Avatar of Nicki
    Nicki
    Posted 9 April 2021 at 12:43 pm

    My baby does this when he comes off the breast. It seems to be stretching. He arches all the way back then curls forward, then back, then forward again. He did large stretches in the womb too.

  • Avatar of Kylie
    Kylie
    Posted 30 June 2021 at 6:12 am

    My baby boy 17 weeks is back arching and tilting his head right back in his sleep. Seems to be part of the 4 month leap and learning to roll over onto his tummy.

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