It may be difficult at times for a parent to understand the needs of his or her baby. After all, an infant cannot speak, so it takes a bit of guesswork to determine the reason for each gesture or cry. Does a scream mean hunger, rage, or sleepiness? Even a smile can signify joy or the passing of gas.
Similarly, when parents witness their baby throwing head back and arching, they may watch with concern and speculate about the potential causes of this new development. Fortunately, there are many reasons why this occurs that are normal and harmless, and if an infant is performing these movements for one of the few possible medical-related reasons, treatment is available.
Why Would a Baby Throw His or Her Head Back?
Why a baby may make this movement varies with age. Younger babies may do it because of pain and older babies often perform it as a part of their regular physical or emotional development. It is likely not serious unless it happens along with additional symptoms.
Babies a Few Weeks Old
Babies only a few weeks of age may begin to throw their heads and upper bodies backward when they are uncomfortable. When accompanied by squirming and crying and if it takes place immediately following a meal, reflux may be to blame. This is one of the few medical reasons a baby would make this movement and a visit to the doctor can either confirm or rule it out.
While most babies experience reflux to some degree, obvious discomfort necessitates intervention.
4 to 5-month-old Babies
There are also many harmless reasons why babies would throw their heads back and arch their bodies. One of these is that around the age of four or five months, a baby typically attempts to roll over for the first time. Part of this process is flinging the upper body in the backward direction.
Without visible signs of discomfort, it is developmentally appropriate for your child to make this type of motion at this stage.
9-month-old Babies and Older
By nine months, babies become aware enough to desire that things go a certain way and experience anger and frustration when their expectations remain unmet.
From handing them the wrong toy to providing them a spoon of the incorrect color, babies may become uncontrollably upset. This can entail flinging their entire bodies backward, which while not dangerous in and of itself, can become a problem when held. For this reason, either hold your baby very tight or, when possible, place him or her down on a soft surface until the tantrum has subsided.
More About Reflux
Parents who believe their little one could have reflux may want to know more about the condition. It occurs when stomach contents flow back up into the esophagus, often causing babies to spit up portions of their last meal.
It happens because the muscle that connects the esophagus and stomach, which usually closes fully after swallowing, is not yet fully formed. Without optimal functioning, some food travels back the direction it came, or refluxes. This is then spit up.
Usually, babies outgrow reflux by the time they are 18 months old, and it rarely causes serious complications. Most infants experience this in varying degrees each day, as babies are well-known to spit up following a feeding.
However, in some instances reflux might also indicate underlying conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or the presence of a blockage or food sensitivity. Watch for additional signs of these such as the vomiting of green, yellow, brown, or blood-tinged fluids, bloody stool, or refusal of food and failure to thrive.
1. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
In the case of gastroesophageal reflux disease, the contents flowing back up to the throat are acidic and can damage the esophageal lining.
It is also important to note the possibility of silent acid reflux, a related condition where stomach acid burns the esophagus but is re-swallowed. So, although a baby may gag or hiccup, vomiting or spitting up will not always occur. Both are quite painful.
Pyloric stenosis, a blockage linked to reflux, is less common and, in fact, considered rare in babies over three months. The condition results when the valve between the small intestine and stomach narrows and prevents the proper flow of food between the two organs. Resolving this may require surgical treatment.
3. Food Sensitivity
Discomfort due to dietary intolerance, a third possible condition related to reflux, usually resolves following changes in feedings. Milk proteins are the most common trigger and should be limited or eliminated to test for sensitivity.
Baby Throwing Head Back: What it Means
When a baby starts to throw his or her head backward, this behavior may indicate many things. A baby may be upset and perform this action as a type of self-expression. Or, an infant may be trying to roll over for the very first time.
Another possibility is that reflux, or a related underlying condition is causing a little one pain. If this instance, dietary changes, antacid drops, or in rare cases, surgery, should put an end to any discomfort. When in doubt, always seek a physician’s advice.