Babies can often behave in mysterious ways which are completely normal. Baby shudders are one of those things and this article aims to explain what can cause shuddering in infants and shed some light on when baby shivers like a chill is nothing to worry about and when it might be something to seek medical advice over.
What is a baby shudder?
A shudder which can sometimes be referred to as a shiver, jerk, jitter, or tremor is the sudden and excessive movement of the body which can last a few seconds with no consequence.
Infantile shudders should not be confused with seizures, which we’ll discuss below, or infantile spasms, which is often more like a baby tensing up.
Shuddering looks like and sounds like they are cold, and sometimes their lip may quiver as well. Other times it looks like they are just shaking something off. Then it stops.
Newborns and toddlers can shudder from time to time just like adults can and the worrying thing for parents is that babies can not tell you the cause or what’s up. However, even if they could they would probably just say it’s nothing.
What does a shudder look like? Is my baby shuddering?
A shudder in infants look just like an adult shudder, you know the feeling that you might get when a sudden cold breeze hits you or you may think back to a scary memory. You probably also know that the shudder usually comes and goes unexplained!
When a baby experiences a shudder it will come suddenly – they’ll typically bend a little, stiffen up and vibrate – almost as if they’re freezing cold. They may even let out a bit of a gasp. Baby shudders only happen when they’re awake and won’t disturb or upset them.
It is instantly recognisable and clearly different to tremors and seizures.
Shuddering vs Seizures
It’s important to note that shuddering and seizures are not the same, although in babies they can sometimes look similar. Seizures are caused by an overactive electrical signal in the brain, and can be associated with epilepsy and other more serious conditions. In a seizure, the baby will usually shake or jerk uncontrollably for some time (in contrast to a shudder which is usually over quickly).
In a seizure, the baby may become unresponsive or lose consciousness altogether, while a shuddering baby is fully aware and not upset.
Another thing to look out for with seizures in babies is a noticeable changes in the baby’s heart rate, facial expression and breathing. In addition, check if you can stop the shaking or jerking – if the shaking continues after you hold on to the moving body part, this is more in line with a seizure.
You should seek medical attention immediately if you expect your baby is experiencing seizures.
What causes babies to shudder, shiver, or shake?
There have been a lot of studies into baby shuddering attacks, including a research paper by the Academic Journal of Pediatrics and Neonatology who have concluded that “Shuddering attacks are recognized as an uncommon benign disorder occurring during infancy or early childhood”.
- Hypnic Jerk. If you observe your children shuddering before they sleep it could be a simple case of a hypnic jerk.
- It’s Cold. Many parents think it musts be cold if the baby shivers like a chill. Well, that’s not entirely true – as Kidspot confirm, newborns don’t (can’t) shiver from the cold because they have a special kind of fat they use to keep warm. However, after 6 months or so shivering can be used as a mechanism to warm up.
- Fear or Anxiety. It’s possible for infants to experience fear or anxiety, but usually not to the extent of shuddering like we would as an adult. However, if you notice your baby shivering as a response to something that is scary it could be due to feeling scared.
- Reflexive Movement. This can occur in babies when they are startled by a loud noise or a sudden movement, and it is also known as the ‘startle reflex’, or Moro reflex. This movement can also be accompanied by a sudden jerk, or arching back.
- Immature Nervous System. Preterm babies may experience trembling or shivering due to their underdeveloped nervous system and muscles not being able to coordinate properly. The baby’s brain may send signals to the body to shudder simply as a result of being uncoordinated.
- Caffeine. If you’re breastfeeding, and drinking large amounts of caffeine, then this could be behind the shuddering. Even small doses of caffeine in babies can have a big impact on the nervous system.
- Hunger. A baby’s shuddering may be an indication of hunger. It can take a few days for the body to adjust to a new feeding schedule, so if you’ve recently changed your baby’s routine and he or she is trembling, it could be time for another feed.
- Fine motor development. A baby’s shuddering may be a sign of their attempts to practice fine motor skills such as grasping, kicking or waving. The trembling is caused by the stimulation of muscles and nerves as they become coordinated.
As you can probably tell, we have not offered any specific explanation as to the cause of the shuddering except to say that normally it is nothing to be worried about. It is just something some children may experience and it usually goes away before their 4th birthday.
When to be concerned about baby shudders
What is infant shudder syndrome?
For something to be considered a syndrome there should be multiple symptoms relating to an abnormality or condition. There is no such thing as infant shudder syndrome and the likelihood is that it is actually something else entirely, such as epilepsy or a seizure.
Symptoms requiring medical advice
If your newborn is suffering from baby shudders or shivers and has any of the following then it is unlikely to be normal baby shuddering spells and the cause will be something else.
Go and see a doctor immediately if the baby shuddering attacks last more than 20 seconds, and any of the following symptoms are true:
- Your child has a temperature (fever)
- They have an injury
- Poor appetite
- Loss of consciousness
- Abnormal eye movements
- Breathing problems
- It is happening in their sleep
Why does my baby get the shakes and what to do?
Newborns and infants do mysterious movements all of the time and it’s important to stay calm and level-headed and accept the vast majority of them are completely normal. However, you can certainly minimise them by ensuring all of their basic needs are met. Why not have a look at this list and see if there’s something you’ve forgotten about?
Tips to reduce the occurrence of shudders
- Feed them. Low blood sugar levels have been suggested to be a potential cause of baby shuddering according to Heathline. We recommend giving your infant a quick feed if you spot him shivering just to make sure they’re not starving which can cause the shakes.
- Reassure them. If your baby has had a recent adrenaline boost this can lead to movements which could be construed as shuddering. If they have recently been startled of scared then calm them down as soon as you can.
- Reduce stress. Stress can cause babies to act out in all manners away. Try and take them out of the situation if they seem like they are not enjoying it and just do whatever it takes to calm them down. Tiredness can make sons and daughters act out which can lead to a different type of behaviour. Have there been any major lifestyle changes since it all started?
- Keep them warm. Although cold temperatures do not make babies shudder it can make them shiver which can be confused with a shudder. Cold jitters tend to affect their body and jaws and not really the whole head. Wrap your bundle of joy warm to eliminate this distinct improbability as the cause of this type of jittering.
- Rest them. Tired babies are cranky and stressed babies. Is it close to bedtime? Are they overtired and need to be made to take a nap?
Can teething cause shuddering?
It’s a myth that teething causes shudders. Teething and most infantile behaviour happens at the same time and is mere coincidence. However, teething does cause stress and discomfort and these may indirectly lead to shuddering, although unlikely.
Can shuddering cause shaken baby syndrome?
No. It takes a violent amount of force to cause shaken baby syndrome – force which is not generated by simple shuddering.
Can bouncing a baby cause shaken baby syndrome?
Although this is unrelated to shuddering it is a related question to this term – regular bouncing will not cause shaken baby syndrome so don’t worry about that favourite baby bouncer session they’re having – they’ll be fine!
Baby shudders are a bit of a mystery but by and large they are completely normal and nothing to fret about. However, if there are other symptoms at play and they last longer than 20 seconds, it’s always best to be sure and visit a doctor.