Arched Back Crying Baby

Arched Back InfographicIf you have a baby that often has an arched back and is crying when you hold her, or she is straightening her legs and screaming, it is easy to get worried.  However, crying is a completely healthy and normal behavior for newborn infants.  For most newborns, arching their backs and crying is perfectly fine and par for the course.

Particularly in the first several months of age, a baby cries in order to verbally communicate with his or her parents. As babies grow, they quickly develop other verbal and non-verbal communication tools, but early on, crying is the only effective tool infants have to talk to their parents.

Not all crying is the same. Infants deploy different types and levels of crying to communicate different things. Some crying is meant to signal that the baby is hungry. Other types of crying are meant to signal pain or discomfort. New parents usually pick up on these subtle crying differences very quickly.

Newborn infants will often cry because they are in discomfort or mild pain. Newborns have gas and other things that bother them, so pain crying is nothing to worry about. However, in rare cases, there is one particular type of "pain crying" that is cause for concern: arched back crying. If a baby appears to be arching its back while crying intensely or straightening her legs and screaming at night, it COULD be a sign of something abnormal. Back arching is a common reflex that babies exhibit when they suffer from very acute or strong pain.

So if a baby is flexing her back when she cries, it may be more than just the normal baby pains. Can infant back arching (with or without crying) be cause for concern?  In an extremely small number of cases, arching the back is also an early symptom of spastic cerebral palsy, jaundice, autism, and other serious complications or signs of injury. 

If you are concerned, read on. But remember the odds are overwhelming that there is nothing wrong with your baby. (Don't skip past that last sentence.  Digest it.)

Possible Concerning Causes of Arched Back Crying

Anything that causes a baby to experience significant pain or discomfort can trigger arched back crying. Your healthcare provider will perform diagnostic testing to determine what is causing your baby's pain. Below is a list of some potential triggers. Keep in mind that the less serious causes are more likely.

  • Colic: Colic is a common problem for newborn babies. It is a broad term used to describe gastrointestinal discomforts in infants. No one really knows exactly why or how colic occurs, but we do know that it has to do with the fact that infants have immature digestive systems that tend to be overly sensitive. Individual cases of colic can range from mild to very severe. Babies were severe colic can exhibit intense pain on a regular basis. Colic usually goes away as the baby develops. Colic is the most likely cause of arched back crying.
  • Infant Acid Reflux: Gastroesophageal reflux (commonly called "acid reflux" or "GERD") is another common problem for newborn babies. Just like acid reflux in adults, infant acid reflux happens when food (for infants breast milk or formula) in the stomach gets pushed back upwards into the throat and esophagus. The reflex that pushes the food back up, involving the lower esophageal sphincter muscles, is uncomfortable itself, and the refluxed food or milk is mixed with stomach acid that burns the inside of the throat. In adults, acid reflux is usually just a minor discomfort, not something particularly painful. In newborns, however, reflux can be extremely uncomfortable and even painful. Infant GERD is also a likely cause of arched back crying, especially if the baby cries most often after feeding. There is at least one study that suggests chiropractic care can help these babies.
  • Nerve Damage: During a long or difficult vaginal delivery, babies often suffer damage to their delicate nerves. The nerves in babies' shoulders are particularly vulnerable during vaginal delivery. When nerve damage during delivery is very significant, it can result in permanent injuries such as Erb's Palsy. Minor nerve damage or pinched nerves suffered during vaginal delivery can trigger acute pain along the baby's neck and back. This shooting pain is a potential trigger of back arching and pain crying.
  • Jaundice/Kernicterus: Jaundice is a common condition that most newborns experience to some degree. It is caused by excess levels of bilirubin (a waste product of red blood cell break down) in the baby's bloodstream. Jaundice itself is not painful, however, it can become dangerous if not treated. Eventually, severe jaundice can lead to kernicterus, a rare type of brain damage caused by excess bilirubin. When jaundice starts to progress to this threatening stage, babies reportedly experience intense pain along their spine. If a baby has severe jaundice, arched back crying is often viewed as an early clinical symptom of kernicterus.
  • Autism: It is impossible to diagnose autism in a newborn.  But it is true that symptoms such as excessive drooling and arching her back when held are symptoms that are more common in autistic babies.  But, again, and you have to remember this, these are common in perfectly normal newborns as well.
  • Cerebral Palsy: Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder caused by damage to the developing brain of a baby or fetus. The injury impairs the brain's ability to control and coordinate muscle movements in the body through impulse signals. There are several different types of cerebral palsy. The predominant type of cerebral palsy is spastic CP, which is characterized by involuntary muscle contractions and rigidity. Back arching in newborn babies is one of the earliest signs of involuntary muscle contractions in children with spastic CP.
What a Baby Arching Her Back Likely Means

Parents are alarmists. The proclivity to overreact comes with the job.  It is not a bad thing. It keeps you vigilant.  If you have a baby arching her back, keep an eye on it.  But keep it in context too.  The overwhelming likelihood is that you have a normal, happy, and healthy baby.