Why Do Babies Keep Rubbing Their Ears – Reasons New Parents Must Know
A lot of behaviours of an infant are strange and scary for first-time parents. One of the common ones that leave them astounded is figuring out why babies rub their ears so much. The instantaneous thought is that of an illness or a condition that is severely disturbing for the child. However, many children simply prefer to explore their own bodies in their own way. Understanding the signs that differentiate a curious act from a need to resolve some kind of an ache, can help the parents support their children better.
Is Ear Pulling in Babies Normal?
A baby tugging at his ear can be normal and may not always indicate a problem. It can be a self-soothing behavior or a way for babies to explore their bodies. However, if ear pulling is accompanied by signs of discomfort, such as crying, fever, or changes in behavior, it’s essential to consult a pediatrician to rule out ear infections or other health issues.
Common Causes of Ear Itching in Infants
Why do babies pull their ears? For most first-time parents, a baby scratching his ear might seem to be a sign of something wrong with the child. However, that isn’t always so. Baby scratching ear can range from something as minuscule as boredom to something as serious as an illness or an infection. Understanding the causes that commonly cause babies to scratch their ears can be helpful in this regard.
1. Your Baby is Tired or Extremely Bored
There doesn’t seem to be any understanding behind babies scratching their ears when they are tired, bored or even sleepy. But many scenarios have been observed which have shown such a connection to be present. A lot of children do this when they have just been fed and have been extremely tired (1). Therefore, if you notice your baby doing this, it might be worth a try to put him to sleep.
- No correction is required on this front. Do try to engage the child if the rubbing tends to get intense or hurts him in any manner.
2. Your Child Has Just Discovered the Ear
Babies are always exploring everything around them. This also includes their own body. As they discover hands and fingers one day and begin to understand that they can control them, there is also a possibility that they end up discovering ears on the sides of their heads by accident. When that happens, they will constantly attempt to feel them again and touch them repetitively.
- Curiosity is a good thing for this age. Talk to your child and show him your own ear, letting him understand what it looks like.
3. The Earwax Inside the Ear Has Built Up Considerably
The production of earwax is a natural process that begins early in life. Throughout that phase, parents attempt to clean the earwax by using earbuds or other unorthodox techniques. Since these are considerably larger than the canal, rather than pulling out the wax, they end up pushing it deeper within. This causes an itching sensation (2).
- Instead of using a cotton swab, make use of a cloth dipped in warm water. Wipe the outer area without letting any water enter the canal.
- Make a solution using equal parts of water and hydrogen peroxide, using it to clean the ears. Proceed only after your doctor agrees with it.
4. Your Baby is Undergoing a Teething Phase
There is a good connection between teething and rubbing ears in an infant. The trinity of ear, nose and throat are interconnected to each other. Which is why, any irritation in one part ends up causing sensations in the other, and even affecting it. When teething occurs, it begins to irritate the gums and the entire area of the mouth. This can result in a mild pain in the ears, which your baby might attempt to relieve by scratching or pulling his ears (3). These are also accompanied by excessive drooling, the need to chew on various items or even a fever at a temperature of 101 degrees or so.
- Sanitise your hands and gently rub the baby’s gums with your finger.
- Use a spoon chilled in the fridge as a means to calm the gum irritation.
5. The Presence of an Infection Due to Cold-Related Illness
Illness or infection is one of the most common and strong reasons that can make a child itch or pull on his ears all the time. Catching a cold has a possibility of infecting the ear in multiple ways, which is usually termed as otitis media (4). This is where the infection affects the tube, connecting the ear to the nasal cavity. When it gets infected, the tube swells up considerably. As a result of the swelling, the mucus that needs to be cleared in the first place will fail to find a way out and remain stuck in the tube, infecting it further with the bacteria and other microbes.
In a normal state, the tube can easily flush out the fluids from the ear. But not in this case, which primarily affects babies that do not have a fully matured immunity system or suffer from a weak one due to birth-related problems.
- Let your child breathe in warm steam to clear the nostrils and allow the trapped fluid to flow out.
- Keep a humidifier in the child’s room.
6. Your Child Is Suffering From Swimmer’s Ear
Don’t let the name lead you to believe that your baby needs to have entered a swimming pool or any water body to have suffered from this infection. Similar to otitis media, which affects the internal part of the ear, this condition is termed as otitis externa, affecting the external ear canal (5). If any kind of moisture, either from a bath or even from a moist cotton swab, comes into contact with the outer canal lining, it can irritate the lining considerably. This leads to the baby constantly pulling and tugging at his ear. At times, this can even irritate the lining further and remove its protective covering, which opens up the gateway to further infections.
- Use the aforementioned techniques to clear any trapped water from the ear.
- Keep the baby’s ears covered when bathing him.
7. Your Child Has an Ear Infection
Otitis is how ear problems are generally described as, with the primary ear infection being termed as otitis itself. It isn’t uncommon to hear about it and many infants who have completed around 6 months since childbirth, can fall prey to these infections. Behavioural symptoms of such a condition usually range from a crank child, who finds feeding in any form painful. His sleep cycle would also be disturbed and he might even suffer from a temporary hearing loss. Many babies also exhibit fever or a have yellow fluid draining out of the ears, accompanied with a runny nose and painful ears.
- Apply a warm compress on the baby’s ears.
- In case of fever or extreme pain, talk to a doctor about administering acetaminophen.
8. Skin Sensitivity or Allergies
The baby’s ear itching could be a result of skin sensitivity or allergies to certain fabrics, shampoos, or other products that come into contact with the ear area.
- Ensure that the materials used for bedding, clothing, and personal care products are hypoallergenic.
- If the itching persists, consult with a pediatrician to identify and address potential allergens.
How to Treat Ear Rubbing or Pulling in Babies?
Should ear pulling indicate an underlying issue, addressing the root cause becomes essential to halt this behavior. Potential treatments vary depending on the specific cause (6):
- Antibiotics and Antifungals: In the case of an ear infection resistant to watchful waiting, healthcare professionals may prescribe oral antibiotics or antifungals. Severe cases may require a combination of oral antibiotics and antibiotic ear drops. Swimmer’s ear infections may be addressed with antifungal ointments and ear drops.
- Respiratory Infection Medications: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen, recommended by a doctor, can manage upper respiratory infections like the common cold. These medications may help control mucus secretion, preventing the worsening of ear irritation. Bacterial infections may necessitate antibiotic treatment.
- Foreign Body Removal: When ear pulling results from a foreign body, a medical professional will examine the ear canal and perform removal as necessary.
- Topical Ointments: Babies with conditions like eczema or psoriasis may receive corticosteroid-based ointments to alleviate itching. The baby’s doctor may also prescribe specific lotions or creams based on the nature and severity of the skin problem.
General Tips to Comfort Your Baby From Ear Pain or Irritation
- Seeing your baby rubbing his ears at night and failing to fall asleep comfortably can make you feel sad for him. There are a few tips that you can make use of to calm the child and reduce the irritation or pain in the ears.
- Let the child sleep in an inclined position or use a pillow, if old enough.
- Massaging the region around the ears can help drain the trapped liquid easily.
When to Visit a Doctor?
Seek medical attention if your baby pulls his ear for more than a week or consistently shows signs of discomfort or pain during the action. It is imperative to consult a doctor if the baby exhibits the following symptoms alongside ear-pulling:
- Fever exceeding 100.4°F (38°C)
- Discharge of fluid from the ear
- Redness or the presence of white patches along the ear canal
- Swelling or redness in the outer ear
- Excessive nasal mucus or drooling
- Redness of the skin surrounding the outer ear
- Detection of a foreign body inside the ear canal
- Indications of infection, including vomiting, diarrhea, diminished appetite, and disrupted sleep patterns.
1. Is There a Relation Between Ear Pulling and Colic in Babies?
While baby grabbing ear itself may not directly indicate colic, both can be signs of discomfort or distress in infants. Colic is often associated with excessive, inconsolable crying, and ear pulling might be a way babies express discomfort.
2. What Does Newborn Ear Pulling Mean in Body Language?
Newborn ear pulling can have various interpretations. It might be a self-soothing action, a response to teething discomfort, or simply an exploratory behavior as babies discover their bodies. It’s essential to observe accompanying signs and consider factors like tiredness or boredom to better understand the meaning behind the ear pulling. If persistent or accompanied by other concerning symptoms, consulting with a pediatrician is advisable.
Apart from the treatment that your doctors advise, there are many home remedies for ear itching in babies that you can make use of. Some of them are pretty safe and tried and tested for generations. A few others make use of herbs or chemicals, which may or may not be safe for your little one. Consider your doctor’s approval to be a green sign to go ahead with them, and keep your baby healthy and happy.
1. Ear – Pulling At or Rubbing; American Academy of Pediatrics; https://www.healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/symptom-checker/Pages/symptomviewer.aspx?symptom=Ear+-+Pulling+At+or+Rubbing
2. Your Infant is Teething: Know the Signs and Symptoms; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; https://www.chla.org/blog/advice-experts/your-infant-teething-know-signs-and-symptoms
3. Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection); Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; https://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/otitis-media-middle-ear-infection
4. Swimmer’s Ear in Children; American Academy of Pediatrics; https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/ear-nose-throat/Pages/Swimmers-Ear-in-Children.aspx
5. Ear Infections in Babies and Toddlers; Johns Hopkins Medicine; https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/ear-infections-in-babies-and-toddlers
6. Have You Heard About Ear Tube Surgery and Developmental Delays?; Penn Highlands Healthcare; https://www.phhealthcare.org/news/penn-highlands-healthcare-news/have-you-heard-about-ear-tube-surgery-and-developmental-delays