It may sound strange to you, but the occasional grunts coming from your newborn are perfectly normal. As a new parent, you listen to every little sound and movement your baby makes.

While most of the time your newborn’s gurgling noises and squirms seem so sweet and helpless, when they grunt you may begin to worry if they are in pain or need help.

Newborn grunting is usually related to digestion. The baby is simply getting used to their mother’s milk or formula. They may have gas or pressure in their stomach that makes them feel uncomfortable and they haven’t learned yet how to move things through.

They will grunt until they can figure it out, but it may take a few months for your newborn to produce a bowel movement or pass gas without grunting. Some people call this grunting baby syndrome (GBS). Rest assured, it’s fairly common and rarely a sign of something serious.

While most grunting is normal, if your baby is grunting with every breath, has a fever, or appears to be under distress, see your doctor. This may be a sign of a more serious respiratory problem and needs immediate attention.

The Cause of Newborn Grunting

When a baby grunts, it usually means they are learning how to have a bowel movement. They have not yet figured out how to relax the pelvic floor while also using abdominal pressure to move stool and gas through their system. Their abdominal muscles are weak and they must bear down with the diaphragm against their closed voice box, or glottis. This leads to a grunting noise.

Your baby grunting shouldn’t be confused with constipation. Your newborn’s system is working correctly to produce excrement. Your baby just hasn’t figured out how to move it through. While the grunting is unpleasant, your newborn simply needs to get used to its new world.

When Is It Normal?

Newborn grunting will typically happen around the time your newborn is having a bowel movement. Your baby may also look like they are straining and their head may turn purple or red in color. This may last for several minutes, according to an article in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition (JPGN).

The Remedies

The only true cure for a grunting baby is for your newborn to learn how to relax their anus while pushing with their abdomen. This is something your baby will learn with time through trial and error.

You should confirm with your doctor that your baby’s grunting is normal. Some doctors will recommend that parents help their newborn by providing anal stimulation. This involves use of an anal thermometer or a piece of cotton to help stimulate the bowel.

While this method will usually work to help your baby have a bowel movement, it may have negative side effects in the long run. As with many types of laxatives, your baby may eventually become dependent on this method in order to have a bowel movement. According to JPGN, repeated use of this method will delay your infant’s ability to learn the correct process for passing stool.

In most cases, the grunting will start in the first months of life and resolve on its own after a few weeks. Every baby is different. It all depends on how long it takes for your newborn to master the coordination of its bowel movements.

When to Be Concerned

The grunting of a healthy child learning how to deal with digestion is different from a sick baby.

Grunting with every breath is never normal. Grunting at the end of every breath could be a sign of respiratory distress. If your baby is grunting often and also has other signs of illness, such as a fever, or appears under distress, see your doctor. This could be a sign of a serious medical condition and requires immediate attention.

Grunting with breathing could be a sign of:

  • asthma
  • pneumonia
  • sepsis
  • meningitis
  • heart failure (that causes fluid in the lungs)

Check for other signs of respiratory distress or illness to determine if your baby’s grunts are normal or a sign of another problem. Other signs of respiratory problems include:

  • blue tongue or skin
  • weight loss
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • nasal flaring
  • pauses in breathing

The Takeaway

Watching and hearing your baby struggle may be difficult, but in the end it’s important to let them figure it out on their own.

Grunting may seem a little scary, but it serves a very useful and healthy purpose for your baby. See your doctor for a checkup if you have questions or concerns about your grunting baby. If the baby is healthy, active, appears happy, and is eating well, grunting is rarely a sign of illness. However, grunting with every breath should be treated as a medical emergency.