Your baby seems to be growing and developing at lightning speed. They’re learning and doing new things every day, including some things that you’d rather they didn’t do. But if your baby is suddenly pulling, tugging, or scratching at their ears, don’t worry.
There are several reasons why your little one has a sudden fascination with their ears. In fact, if your baby is touching their ears but doesn’t have any other signs or symptoms, it’s most likely harmless.
Here’s how to figure out when it might be something more.
Your baby has just discovered they have ears
Your baby may have just noticed that they have ears attached to their head! This is kind of like that time your baby realized that they could make their hands move and kept wiggling their fingers in front of their face — or accidentally smacking themselves.
Since their ears are something new and their pincer grip is getting stronger, your baby might touch, pull, or play with their ears This can become a temporary habit. They’ll stop touching their ears as soon as something else captures their attention — perhaps their toes!
Your baby is self-soothing
You might be used to your little one calming themselves by sucking on a pacifier or their hand or thumb. But babies may self-soothe in other ways, too. Your baby might be pulling, rubbing, or touching their ears because it feels good and helps them relax.
If your baby is playing with their ears to self-soothe, you’ll probably notice that they do it more right before they fall asleep or between feedings. As your baby grows, they won’t need to self-soothe in this way and will stop on their own.
Your baby has itchy skin
Your baby might just be scratching an itch when they’re pulling or rubbing at their ears. Babies can get dry skin for many reasons, just like adults. Some causes of dry, itchy skin are mild and go away on their own.
The delicate skin around your baby’s ears and head can also get dry. Your baby might sometimes have slightly dry or itchy skin due to the following:
- dry air
- temperature changes
- too much washing or bathing
- some soaps or cleansers
- laundry detergent
- some types of clothing fabric
- too much sweating
Let your doctor know if your baby has a serious rash or keeps getting dry, flaky skin or any kind of a rash. Eczema is common in babies. Almost 65 percent percent of babies and children with atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, show symptoms of this skin condition before they’re 1 year old.
Eczema symptoms in babies include:
- dry, scaly skin patches
- skin swelling
- tiny skin bumps
- thick or hard skin patches
- crusting or pus on the skin
- sensitive skin
- irritability and crying
- difficulty sleeping or feeding
Your baby has an ear infection
Your baby might be pulling or touching their ears because they have pain from an ear infection. Ear infections are most common in babies and toddlers between 3 months and 3 years old. And the poor little buggers can get them more than once.
Babies and small children get more ear infections because of where their ear tubes are. They have more horizontal ear tubes, while older children and adults have vertical ear tubes. Fluid doesn’t drain out of a baby’s horizontal ear tubes as well as it does from vertical tubes.
If your usually happy baby is touching or scratching at their ears, look for other signs and symptoms of an earache, including:
- not wanting to feed
- difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- runny nose
- allergy symptoms
- other cold or flu symptoms
- just got over a cold or flu
Your baby is teething or has general pain
Teething pain can look a lot like an ear infection in a baby. This is because the nerves around the teeth and mouth go all the way to the ears. One difference is that an ear infection usually happens during or right after your baby has a cold or the flu and may be accompanied by a fever.
Your baby might be pulling at their ears because they’re just really, really upset. If your baby has a cold or diaper rash, they might grab at their ears out of frustration. When this happens your little one will also show other signs of being in pain, like:
- turning red
- skin rash
- more drooling than normal
- putting their hands or toys in their mouth
- touching their mouth
- runny nose
- skin rash
Dealing with your baby’s ear tugging depends on why they’re doing it. In some cases, you might need medical treatment to help soothe the cause.
If your little one is grabbing or pulling at their ears just because, or scratching their ears so badly that their skin becomes raw or even bleeds, try to help deter the ear obsession. Put little mittens or a new pair of socks onto your baby’s hands to stop their roaming fingers.
You can also distract your baby by giving them other things to do with their hands, like playing with something colorful and loud. Giving your baby new textures — like a rubbery toy — to feel is also great for their development and might help them forget their ears for a bit.
Soothe teething pain with a cold pacifier. Alternatively, ask your baby’s pediatrician if they recommend baby pain medication. Also, see your pediatrician if your baby is pulling their ears and has had a cold or flu recently, or if they have any other symptoms.
Baby ear infections can be caused by bacterial or viral infections. Leaving them untreated can damage hearing. Your baby may need a course of antibiotics or other treatment for an ear infection.
Similarly, skin rashes like eczema can be serious in some babies. While there’s no cure, your doctor can give your baby the best treatment to help keep symptoms away.
Baby dandruff or cradle cap usually clears up on its own, though it’s not uncommon for it to persist for several months. Washing your baby’s scalp every couple of days with a baby shampoo and warm water can help loosen scaly patches.
When it comes to babies and their ears (or any other body part, for that matter), it’s always best to let your pediatrician know if something doesn’t seem quite right to you.
If your baby is tugging at their ears and has any other symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.
Baby ear pulling, scratching, or grabbing might just be another cute thing your baby can do. It’s likely completely normal, and they’ll stop doing it on their own. (Or if they’re a little too playful with their ears, the dreaded mittens or hand-socks might have to come out again.)
On the other hand, ear tugging or scratching along with other symptoms may be a sign that your baby is in pain, irritated, or generally unwell. Ear, scalp, and skin-related health problems in babies can be serious. See your pediatrician for a checkup right away.