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When you hold your newborn in your arms for the first time, the first thought that you have is, “how can someone be this tiny and utterly pretty?” It is simply impossible to take eyes off that cute wonder whom you nurtured and protected in your womb for the longest time. As the time passes your baby will amaze you with various unusual activities. Yes, all that you notice is he sleeps, breastfeeds, poops, and sleeps some more…only to repeat rest of the activities over and over. But did you notice how your baby’s hands fists are clenched tightly? You certainly did not give it a thought, did you now? No worries…you can find out why a baby clenches his fist, almost all the time.
Causes of Clenched Fists in Babies
When a baby clenches his fists, it is more of a primal instinct. It has no clinical significance. However, some of the possible causes of clenched fists in babies can be.
1. Palmer 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 a cause 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 body 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 mom swings from treetops.
What Would Happen If They Did 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 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.
When Do Babies Unclench Their Fists and Start Using Their Hands
Most moms would like to know for how long babies 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 3–4 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 6-7 months, they learn to grasp, hold, and release objects.
It is normal for babies to clench their fists and slowly they will 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.