Grunting in babies is characterized by short, guttural noises that indicate strain, especially when they are trying to pass stool. Babies may grunt to relieve tension, express their irritation or frustration, or gain their parents’ attention. Babies may also grunt when they try to adjust to changes in feeding. However, in most cases, grunting is a sign that the baby is adjusting to passing stools (1).
Grunting in babies is common, but it may be a sign of an underlying problem in some cases. Read this post to learn more about the causes of grunting in babies, ways to interpret grunting sounds, and ways to manage grunting in babies.
Is Grunting Normal In Babies?
Towards the end of the first year, grunting could be used as a means of communication (2). It is informally known as grunting baby syndrome (GBS), which is relatively normal in babies.
It could also be an indication of your baby learning to have a bowel movement. However, in some cases, the sound could be a symptom of an underlying health problem warranting medical attention.
In newborns, grunting may need attention. A recent research study involving 453 babies suggested that all the term and near-term newborns with persistent grunting after birth should be carefully observed and treated if required (3).
What Are The Causes Of Baby Grunting?
While the primary reason for grunting in babies is to aid bowel movements, there are a few other causes for newborn grunting. Let us look at each in detail.
- Bowel movements: Newborn grunting during a bowel movement is due to the underdeveloped abdominal muscles (1), which requires the baby to push the stools out. When the baby grunts, the larynx is closed and is pushed down along with the diaphragm to aid the bowel movements further.
Dr. Christina Johns, MD, MEd, FAAP, a Maryland-based pediatrician says, “Grunting that results in a successful bowel movement does not mean that a baby is constipated. When a baby is straining, turning red without resultant production of a bowel movement that can be a sign of constipation.”
- Means of communication: As newborns do not know how to speak, they make a variety of sounds to communicate. Along with squeals, gurgles, and laughs, grunting can be a baby’s attempt to self-entertain or communicate. If you find your baby grunting as a result of an external stimulus or along with other noises, then chances are it is only to get your attention.
- Breathing: Grunting can have a similar effect as yawning and sighing, which flood the lungs with oxygen (4). So sometimes, when babies grunt in sleep, they tend to take a few deep breaths immediately afterward.
- Breastfeeding: Babies of all ages normally tend to grunt while nursing. One of the possible reasons for this might be an oversupply of milk; this can happen at any stage of breastfeeding. When the baby consumes a lot of milk, it passes through the digestive system quickly, increasing digestive distress. Also, to cope with the excess milk flow, the baby tends to inhale air. Babies may grunt when trying to handle the distress and the gas.
- Illness: Babies also grunt in the case of specific illnesses such as meningitis, sepsis, lung and heart problems. This grunting is not like anything mentioned above; it comes at regular intervals with each breath. The baby will also show signs of distress accompanied by bubbling and wheezing.
Newborns may also grunt:
- To develop control over their breathing patterns.
- When the mucus is trapped in their nasal passage.
- During acid reflux, as it causes discomfort.
- All night, probably because of a dream, gas or a bowel movement.
Baby grunting is mostly normal. If there are no serious signs, but you are concerned about your baby’s grunting, you could try a few home remedies after seeking the doctor’s opinion.
Home Remedies For Grunting
Here are a few tips you can try at home to reduce the baby’s grunting.
- Anal stimulation: If the cause of your baby’s grunting is a bowel movement, then anal stimulation helps them to pass stools. This is done by carefully making firm circular movements with your index finger around the anus, or softly pressing with you finger on the side of the anus. You can also, but with great care, use an earbud dipped in KY-jelly and place it in the anal opening and softly roll it to relax the baby’s anus. However, do not try this repeatedly as it could delay the infant’s learning of the defecation process (5). Bend the knees and hips when you do this. The baby starts to follow the defecation process and gradually stops grunting when the stomach muscles strengthen, and as they learn to relax their pelvic muscles. This will occur after your baby is a few months old.
- While nursing: Try some of these home remedies to prevent the baby from grunting while nursing.
- Leaning back: As soon as your baby latches, try to lean back so that the baby’s head and throat are higher than the nipple. Or lie to one side so that the excess milk will dribble out of their mouth.
- Unlatching the baby: Mothers can usually feel the flow of milk from their ducts. So, if you feel there is going to be a major meltdown, let the baby have some foremilk, unlatch the baby and let the excess milk flow. Once the flow normalizes, you can continue feeding the hindmilk.
- Feeding on one breast: Let the baby feed on one breast for one or two sessions, allowing the breasts to stay full for a while. This signals the body to reduce breastmilk production.
- Smaller meals: Another way to reduce the baby’s grunting is to give them smaller meals throughout the day to aid in digestion. However, it is suggested to take the doctor’s advice before trying this. Also, try and keep the baby in an upright position for at least 30 minutes after feeding.
- Regular winding: Winding after every meal can prevent baby grunting. It also aids the baby’s underdeveloped digestive system to cope with digestion.
- The sleeping position of the baby: Tilt the baby’s cot so that it is at a 40° angle and adjust the mattress such that the baby’s head is at a slightly elevated position. The baby might take some time to get used to this sleeping position, but it will help to prevent grunting during sleep. Alternatively, if your baby is continuously grunting at night due to gas, you can try bicycle maneuvers with the legs to help them pass the gas.
When To Be Concerned About Baby Grunting?
As long as your baby is happy, healthy, and active, you need not worry about it. However, grunting with every breath is not normal, especially if grunting comes with symptoms like shortness of breath or red or blue discoloration of the face when you must consult a pediatrician. Here are some more instances where a baby’s grunting may not be normal.
- Respiratory issues: Grunting can be a symptom of breathing problems in newborns. If the baby displays the following signs along with grunting, it could indicate distress due to respiratory problems (2):
- Rapid or irregular breathing
- Flaring nostrils
- Cyanosis (blue coloration of the skin)
- Coughing or wheezing
- Heart problem: Sometimes, grunting could be a sign of heart issues. If there is a severe blockage of blood to the lungs, then along with grunting, your baby might show signs such as having difficulty in feeding, puffy eyes, lethargy, and poor urine output. In such situations, seek medical attention as soon as possible (3).
- Sepsis: This is a major health condition caused by the body’s response to infection. Sepsis develops when the chemicals released by the immune system start to cause inflammation throughout the body. The symptoms of sepsis include difficulty in feeding, convulsions, fever, and loud grunting sounds (6).
- Other symptoms: Other symptoms such as weight loss, lethargy, nasal flaring, and pauses in breathing with grunting should also be evaluated to rule out an underlying health issue. Be watchfulIf your baby frequently spits up and makes a lot of gurgling and grunting noises after eating, consult a pediatrician.
When grunting is associated with any of the symptoms mentioned above, then it is best to consult your doctor.
Grunting in babies is common toward the end of the first year. In most cases, it is a natural part of the development and should not be a reason for worry. Most babies grunt during bowel movements, breathing, or breastfeeding. You may try home remedies such as smaller meals and regular winding to reduce baby grunts. However, if the grunting continues, consult a doctor. Sometimes, the grunts may be due to underlying causes such as respiratory issues or heart problems. As long as your baby is happy and active, you need not worry about grunting. Babies will eventually stop it as their stomach muscles develop.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How long does grunting last in babies?
Dr. Johns says, “It can last up to a few months as infants “figure out” how to empty their bowels.”
Babies may usually start grunting during the initial months of life, and it continues for about a few weeks after that.
2. Is respiratory grunting normal in newborns?
Yes. Grunting due to respiration is a normal occurrence in newborns and usually disappears by itself during the initial months after the baby’s birth.
3. Why is my baby grunting and groaning so much?
When your baby is grunting and groaning while they are asleep, or otherwise, they are adjusting to their bowel movements or going through some digestive distress due to the air they inhaled while feeding. It is usually not a cause for concern and will resolve on its own.
4. How do I stop my baby from grunting?
Grunting stops when the babies learn to relax their pelvic floor muscles and abdominal muscles become stronger. Treat the underlying conditions to prevent grunting due to illnesses. You may also try home remedies, such as giving tummy time and feeding smaller quantities at frequent intervals to help prevent grunting in babies.
Infographic: Potential Rare Causes For Baby’s Grunting
Although it is common for babies to grunt, some reasons tend to be severe and require extensive treatments. This infographic presents some rare conditions that may manifest through a baby’s grunting.
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team
- By the end of the first year, babies’ grunting baby syndrome (GBS) is quite prevalent.
- Apart from assisting with bowel movement, babies’ grunting can be a means of communication.
- A baby’s proper nursing and sleeping position can prevent grunting while breathing or breastfeeding.
- Some serious conditions, such as respiratory and heart disorders, can also cause grunting in babies.
2. SS Mathai, U Raju, M Kantikar; Management of Respiratory Distress In the Newborn (2011); US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
3. Rocha GM et al.; Persistent grunting respirations after birth.; National Center For Biotechnology Information (2018)
4. Looking after children with congenital heart disease: 40 questions and answers(2010); healthtalk.org.
5. Di Lorenzo, Carlo; Other Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders in Infants and Young Children(2013); Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.
6. Alonso Zea-Vera and Theresa J. Ochoa; Challenges in the diagnosis and management of neonatal sepsis; Oxford University Press
7. Gentry C. Yost et al.; Significance of Grunting Respirations in Infants Admitted to a Well-Baby Nursery; The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (2001)
8. Dyschezia; Cleveland Clinic