Grunting Babies

Why do babies grunt at night?

Well, let’s eliminate the serious reasons first.

1. Baby might not be getting enough air. This is not very common. It can happen to a very new baby or to a baby who has a cold or croup. In this case the grunting would go along with a blue colour in the skin, pauses in breathing, flaring of the nostrils, the chest muscles drawing in sharply with the breath. If your baby shows these symptoms, please call 911 or go to Emergency.

2. Reflux. Some babies have immature sphincters at the top of their stomach and acid from the stomach can pass back into the throat and cause burning pain. Try propping the head of your baby’s crib or bassinet up a little, and/or hold baby upright for awhile after feeds. Babies with reflux are pretty miserable. Please make an appointment with your doctor to diagnose the reflux and prescribe treatment.

3. Baby’s gut is moving. This is the most common cause of grunting. Almost every parent in our Baby Group reports that their baby grunts, especially in the very early morning (4-6am). Babies (and the rest of us) sleep more lightly in the early morning and as their bodies get ready for daytime activity, their gut starts to move and they notice it and start to grunt and squirm and raise and lower their legs (some babies slap their legs down on to the mattress) and fart.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that your baby has “too much gas” or is “colicky” or that you should change your diet or give pro-biotics. This is part of how some babies behave.

Parents notice that these babies are not unhappy. They are not crying. They do not seem to be in pain. They are just making noises and being restless. They may be awake, or their eyes may be closed.  If the parent picks the baby up and holds the baby on the parent’s chest, the baby often falls into a deep, quiet sleep. This is because it is easier for a baby to fall into deep sleep on top of another human. If this allows you to get another hour or two of sleep, there is no harm in it. It won’t “set up bad habits.” The early-morning grunting usually stops around 3-4 months. You can change your early-morning habits then.

Is it okay to ignore a baby who is grunting, but not unhappy? Yes! Parents of second or third or fourth babies learn that babies grunt and it doesn’t always mean they need us. Parent of first babies are  a little more anxious and are tuned in to every squeak and rustle. I don’t think this helps the parents or the babies.

If you leave your content (not unhappy, not crying or whining) little grunting baby alone, you may be providing the baby with an opportunity to learn how to go back to sleep without help from you. Also, if you stay lying down, and train your breathing to be slow and steady, you are giving your baby an important lesson in culturally-appropriate early morning behaviour. You are saying, in essence: “It’s too early to get up. I’m still sleeping, see?” And the baby may follow your lead and go back to sleep for a bit. But if you lie there and fidget and fuss and worry because your baby is grunting and farting, your baby is much less likely to go back to sleep.

Please note that I am not telling you to ignore an unhappy or sick baby! As a parent, one of the things you start to learn is how to tell the difference between a baby doing a baby thing, which will change with time and development, and a baby doing something that is a sign of distress. Trust your instincts. Listen to your baby and your heart.