Although it’s common for infants to cry, it’s not always typical for them exhibit an arched back while doing so. However, it’s not always something to be concerned about. Sometimes parents see this when toddlers cry and arch their back as a way of wriggling out of a mother’s grasp. Yet, while this struggle is easily identified in toddlers who are defiant and trying to get away, it should not be seen in infants for no apparent reasons. If your baby has an arched back while crying, it may be an indication of a medical problem.
An arched back while crying is primarily symptomatic of pain. Arching the back doesn’t really do anything for the child (unless their muscles are also writhing, but that’s another symptom entirely), but instead it’s a behavior that exhibits a kind of desperation for the child, a movement that attempts to self-soothe. At this phase in your identification of the symptom, you should consider making an appointment with your pediatrician because sometimes the problem is not externally obvious.
Nerve Damage or “Stingers”
One of the internal sources for infants who arch their back while crying may be nerve-related. Sometimes during a difficult delivery, a child can be pulled out by the arms, the feet, or can be born face first, putting undue pressure on the neck and shoulder area and thus causing nerve damage.
If your child had or currently has jaundice and is exhibiting an arched back while crying, you should consult your doctor immediately. Arching a back while crying in conjunction with jaundice is a sign of kernicterus, a rare type of brain damage caused by excessive levels of bilirubin. Left untreated, kernicterus can lead to cognitive disabilities, hearing loss, and even death.
Other symptoms of kernicterus include an absent startle reflex, poor sucking or feeding, lethargy, a bulging soft spot on the head, or even seizures. Kernicterus can be diagnosed by a doctor’s physical exam, or by testing the levels of bilirubin in the blood.
While an arched back while crying may appear like average uncomfortable crying for a new parent, it’s not something to take lightly. Instead, it could be indicative of a birth injury, and a sign that something could be wrong with your baby.
For more detailed information, refer to our Kernicterus article.
An arching back while feeding may be an indication of gastrointestinal reflux (also known as acid reflux), which may or may not be accompanied with crying. Fortunately, this problem is usually treatable via medication, but it’s important to contact your physician to rule out any additional problems.
In a few cases, an arched back while crying may be an indication of cerebral palsy. Since cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder marked by uncontrollable, spastic movements, infants may involuntary arch their backs, with or without crying. An arched back alone, however, is not indicative of cerebral palsy. Other symptoms are usually detected as well.
For more information, refer to our Cerebral Palsy article.