From nighttime jitters and twitches to having (near-constant) hiccups, babies do a lot of strange things. After all, they’re still developing. When infants are born, they can’t see well, burp easily, or control their head.
They also can’t control their reflexes, which is why many newborns engage in seemingly spastic movements and clench their fists. This might worry you, but is it really cause for concern?
Here’s everything we know about fist clenching.
Babies clench their first for numerous reasons. In fact, this behavior is both common and normal, according to Dr. Ariana Witkin, a board-certified pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Newborns clench their fists due to a neurologic reflex called palmar grasp. This reflex is activated when something is pushed into a newborn’s palm, like a caregiver’s finger,” Witkin explains.
Baby fist clenching is also instinctual. It mirrors the curled position they had in the womb.
In addition, sometimes fist clenching can be a sign of hunger or stress.
“When newborns are hungry, their whole bodies tend to be clenched,” Witkin says. “This includes their fists. However, as they eat and become full, their fists will open and hands relax.”
If you are worried about your baby or their behavior, know this: Fist clenching doesn’t last long.
The palmar reflex usually disappears between 3 and 4 months. What’s more, you’ll likely see changes before the 4-month mark. Your baby may begin to relax their hands as their nervous system develops.
As for when your little one will start using their hands, this change usually occurs around 5 or 6 months, when babies gain the ability to grasp and release objects.
However, your baby may learn to reach for objects of their desire — such as toys, rattles, or bottles — before they’re able to hold them.
For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics actually suggests introducing spoons and sippy cups starting at 6 months. They also recommend letting your baby use their hands to feed themselves.
In most cases, baby fist clenching isn’t cause for concern.
However, if your baby continues to clench their fists longer than expected and also seems rigid and stiff, it could be a sign something more is happening. Cerebral palsy, for example, is a condition that affects a person’s ability to move.
“If fist clenching lasts longer than 3 months, it can be a sign of a potential neurological problem,” says Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
And Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and the vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, agrees: “Babies who clench their fists may have neurologic problems, such as hypertonicity [or an increased state of muscle contraction].”
That said, it’s important to note that these conditions are uncommon. Approximately
However, if you feel something is wrong or are worried about your baby’s development, you should trust your gut and consult your pediatrician. It’s important to keep your baby’s scheduled well visits to monitor their growth and development.
“Parents should feel comfortable enough to discuss their concerns with their child’s pediatrician,” Posner says.
“A thorough exam can and will reveal any problems,” Fisher adds. “Your pediatrician will refer you to a neurologist if there are concerns.”
While fist clenching is normal, at least in most cases, it never hurts to get a second thought or opinion. After all, that’s what your child’s doctor is there for.
But try not to stress. In most cases, fist clenching is a completely typical part of your baby’s behavior and development.