Why Do Babies Clench Their Fists?

Why Do Babies Clench Their Fists?

Medically Reviewed By
Dr. Arti Sharma (Paediatrician)
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When you hold your newborn in your arms for the first time and look into his innocent eyes, you are likely to be overwhelmed. As you spend more time with him and take care of him, you will start noticing and understanding his sleeping pattern, feeding pattern, pooping habits, and more. You’re also likely to notice his clenched fists and may wonder why your little one clenches his fists so tightly. Many new parents wonder about their baby’s fist clenched. If you want to know why babies clench their fists, read this article to find out! Set yourself on the journey to find out the causes behind your little one doing this!

Causes of Clenched Fists in Babies

When a baby clenches his fists, it is more of primal instinct and has no clinical significance. However, some of the possible causes of clenched fists in babies can be.

1. Palmar Grasp Reflex

Babies have a very strong grasping reflex called the “Palmar grasp which prevents them from opening their hands. In case you tickle your baby’s palm or offer him your finger to hold, he is likely to close his fingers around it and clutch it tightly.

2. Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy could also be one of the causes of why a baby clenches his fists all the time. In case a baby’s fists are clenched all the time and his body is stiff, it could be a sign of a neurological disorder, wherein the baby’s brain has difficulty directing the various muscles to perform different functions. Rigid or spastic movements, poor motor control, and muscle weakness are other symptoms of the condition.

3. Vestigial Primitive Reflex

Newborn babies during their initial days of life tend to remember and keep the position they held while curbed inside the uterus. They often hold their arms near their bodies and have their hands clenched into fists. It may take them several weeks before they clench and unclench their fists.

4. Evolutionary History of Humans

Scientists studying human evolution offer a logical explanation for why do babies clench their fists when feeding. A popular view is that they do it because the monkeys did it. Modern humans who seem to share a common ancestry with some species of upright-walking apes learnt the vice-like grip from baby apes who hold on to their mom’s thick hair for survival as they hang in precarious positions while their moms swing from treetops.

Why Do Babies Clench Their Fists During Feeding?

Here are the reasons why your little one clench their fists during feeding:

  • Instinctive Reflex: Clenching fists is an instinctive reflex in infants known as the palmar grasp reflex. When an object, like a parent’s finger or a feeding bottle, touches a baby’s palm, they naturally grip it tightly.
  • Seeking Comfort and Security: Clenching their fists can provide babies with a sense of security and comfort. It’s a way for them to self-soothe and feel reassured during feeding.
  • Oral Reflexes: Babies have strong oral reflexes, which include rooting (turning towards a stimulus near their mouth) and sucking. Clenching their fists may be a part of this coordinated response during feeding.
  • Stimulating Milk Flow: Some babies clench their fists to stimulate the flow of milk. This can be a way for them to control the pace of feeding and ensure they get enough milk.
  • Developmental Milestones: Clenching fists is often associated with the early stages of a baby’s development. It’s a natural part of their neuromuscular development and will typically decrease as they grow older.

What Would Happen If Babies Do Not Clench Their Fists?

If babies don’t clench their fists when they are in the womb, they would perhaps try to pinch or grab. Furthermore, babies have fingernails which could hurt a mother. The most fragile part of the womb is the thin amniotic sac which surrounds the baby. It is a nurturing membrane made up of complex biochemicals. Any pricking or scratching of this flimsy sac can lead to the release of hormones and chemicals that may induce premature labour. Thus, a baby’s clenched fist can be a way of preventing the baby’s fingernails from harming the amniotic sac.

Researchers cite a congenital issue called amniotic band syndrome as a plausible explanation for a baby not clenching his fists. Sometimes thin strands from amniotic sac may get peeled away to float with the amniotic fluid which is around the baby. The strands may wrap around the toes, fingers or even arms of the baby causing serious injury to the limbs including amputation. The reason why some tiny bands get stripped away from the amniotic sac is not known yet. But some doctors propose that a baby’s lack of appropriate palmar grasp reflex can be a reason of amniotic band syndrome. And hence, a baby may not be able to clench his fists.

What Would Happen If Babies Do Not Clench Their Fists?

When Do Babies Unclench Their Fists and Start Using Their Hands?

Most moms like to know for how long babies can clench their fists. The answer is that newborn babies usually clench their fists for the initial few months after their birth due to palmer grasp reflex. By the age of 34 months, they gradually begin unclenching their fists. You may see them relaxing their tight fists and opening their hands as their nervous system slowly matures. They may also try and reach for toys with open hands that you tie them in their crib. And by the age of 67 months, they learn to grasp, hold, and release objects.

Benefits of Opening the Baby Fist

Here are the benefits of opening the baby’s fist:

1. Facilitate the Maturation of the Nervous System

Encouraging the baby to grasp different objects with separated fingers promotes active learning and diverse movements. This aids in the development of perception and concrete thinking abilities.

2. Enhance the Baby’s Hand Coordination Skills

The process of opening a baby’s small hands helps improve their control over fine motor movements, setting the stage for tasks like holding onto toys in the future. As their motor skills progress, babies can engage in more intriguing activities with their hands. This fosters the understanding of the interaction between themselves and the environment, preparing them for learning, functioning, and thriving in the future.

Exercise to Open The Baby’s Fist

  1. During bath time, parents can gently place their fingers into the baby’s palm. The baby will instinctively grasp onto the parent’s finger with their chubby little hand, allowing for a gentle and effective cleaning.
  2. Additionally, when the baby is in a cheerful mood, parents can softly massage the baby’s hand from the thumb to the little finger. This tactile stimulation helps in the development of sensory nerves.

FAQs

1. Does Closed Fist Mean My Baby Is Hungry?

Absolutely, a baby’s clenched fist doesn’t exclusively indicate hunger. It could simply be a reflexive action in their development. To confirm hunger, it’s important to observe other hunger cues as well.

2. What If My 3 Month Old Doesn’t Unclench Her Fist?

If your baby consistently clenches their fists without any intermittent opening, it’s important to consult a paediatrician. This sustained clenched fist motion could potentially be indicative of a more serious condition, such as spasticity, which warrants prompt medical attention.

It is normal for babies to clench their fists but slowly they learn to unclench their fists and grasp and hold other objects. All babies will learn this in their own time so don’t you worry if your baby is a little late. However, if your baby keeps his fists clenched even after 6-7 months, you can talk to your baby’s paediatrician for the same.

References/Resources:

1. Abdulwares Meiwandi & Marios Papadakis; The clenched fist syndrome: case report of a clinical rarity of special interest for psychiatrists and hand surgeons; bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com; https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-019-2348-4

2. Newborn Reflexes; stanfordchildrens.org; https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=newborn-reflexes-90-P02630

3. Newborn Reflexes; healthychildren.org; https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/Pages/Newborn-Reflexes.aspx

4. What is Cerebral Palsy?; cdc.gov; https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/facts.html

5. Cerebral Palsy; my.clevelandclinic.org; https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8717-cerebral-palsy

6. What is amniotic band syndrome?; childrenshospital.org; https://www.childrenshospital.org/conditions/amniotic-band-syndrome

7. Amniotic Band Syndrome; hopkinsmedicine.org; https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/amniotic-band-syndrome

8. Amniotic Band Syndrome; rarediseases.org; https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/amniotic-band-syndrome/

Also Read:

Complete Guide on Your Baby’s Hands
Why Baby is Putting Fingers in Mouth Constantly
Understanding Hand Coordination Skills in Babies

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