Babies discover several new attributes of their surroundings and bodies. It is not uncommon for babies to pull their ears when they realize those flappy protrusions on the sides of the head can be pulled. While most reasons behind babies pulling ears are benign, it may also be due to serious underlying conditions.
Read on as we tell you the reasons behind why your baby pulls their ears, how to deal with the behavior, and when to be concerned about it.
Why Does Your Baby Pull Their Ears?
Below are some of the possible reasons why a baby may pull their ears.
1. Play and self-soothing
Most babies may pull their ears while playing or when they discover their body parts. For instance, a baby may pull their ears while also pulling their nose or toes since they may discover these body parts and their range of motions. It is part of the baby’s self-play during their early months.
Some babies may pull their ears to soothe themselves. In such cases, you may see the baby pulling their ears when upset, cranky, or when trying to fall asleep. Pulling ears for play and self-soothing tends to begin after the age of four months and stops by 12 months (1).
2. Ear infections and irritation
Ear infections cause symptoms, such as ear pain, itching within the ear canal, and a sense of fullness inside the ear, causing the baby to pull their ears.
There are several types of ear infections. Below are some of the common ear infections that could cause a baby to pull their ears.
- Otitis media: It is a common ear infection in babies, and nearly 80% of babies experience at least one otitis media infection by the age of three years (2). There are various types of otitis media infections, leading to different symptoms, which all can lead to ear-pulling behavior. The most common causes are bacterial and viral infections of the middle ear, which lies behind the eardrum.
- Otitis externa: Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, is commonly caused by bacterial overgrowth in the outer ear canal. Children who are immunocompromised or more susceptible to infection are at a higher risk for fungal causes (3). It may be visible from the outside as redness of the skin around the ear opening. In severe cases, you may also see white patches and fluid oozing from the ear canal. Inadequate drying of the ear after a bath or swimming increases susceptibility to otitis externa.
- Ear infections with upper respiratory infections: Babies with respiratory infections, such as the common cold, could have a higher risk of developing ear infections. Infected mucus from the nasopharynx may flow to the middle ear through the Eustachian tube. The fluid doesn’t drain as well in babies and smaller children due to the shorter and horizontal nature of the eustachian tube. This may lead to overgrowth of bacteria in the middle ear. A baby with upper respiratory infections may have a concurrent ear infection, causing them to pull their ears often.
Below are some of the other reasons why a baby may pull their ears.
- Air travel: The pressure change inside an aircraft could cause changes in the pressure within the middle and outer ear. It can lead to temporary ear discomfort, making the baby pull their ears (4).
- Foreign body: In rare cases, a foreign body may get lodged inside the baby’s ears. You may be able to spot the foreign body in the ear canal since often it could be stuck within the outer ear.
- Water: A baby may pull their ears after a bath due to water in their ear canals.
- Allergies: Babies with allergies, especially respiratory allergies, may have excess mucus drain from their Eustachian tube to the middle ear, leading to irritation. In some cases, swollen tissues, such as adenoids, may prevent the draining of the fluid from the middle ear to the nasopharynx, causing a sense of fullness in the ear (5).
3. Skin conditions
Babies with skin problems, such as eczema or psoriasis, may pull their ears to relieve the itch and discomfort caused by these conditions (6) (7). In some cases, the skin inside the ear canal could be affected, causing the baby to pull their ears. If your baby pulls their ears due to skin issues, there are likely to be signs of it on other parts of the body.
Teething babies may commonly show ear-pulling behavior due to the gum irritation radiating across the lower jaw (8). They are also likely to display other signs, such as inflamed gums, excess drooling, desire to bite or gnaw frequently, and general irritation.
Besides these reasons, some babies may have the habit of pulling their ears only when frustrated. In rare cases, a baby may pull ears due to underlying injuries to the facial tissues.
When To See A Doctor?
See a doctor if the baby continues to pull their ears for over a week or if they always cry or appear uncomfortable and in pain while pulling their ears.
You must also see a doctor if the baby displays the following signs and symptoms, along with pulling their ears.
- Fever with a temperature higher than 100.4°F (38°C)
- Fluid oozing from the ear
- Redness or white patches along the ear canal
- Redness or swelling in the outer ear
- Excess nasal mucus or drooling from the mouth
- Redness of the skin around the outer ear
- Presence of foreign body inside the ear canal
- Signs of infection, such as vomiting, diarrhea, poor appetite, and poor sleep
How Is Ear Pulling In Babies Treated?
If ear pulling is a sign of an underlying problem, treating the issue can stop the ear-pulling behavior. The following treatments may be considered depending on the underlying cause.
- Antibiotics and antifungals: If the cause is an ear infection, and it doesn’t resolve after watchful waiting, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics or antifungals. Oral antibiotics along with antibiotic ear drops could be prescribed in severe cases. Antifungal ointments and ear drops could be prescribed to control the spread of infection in the case of swimmer’s ears.
- Medications for respiratory infections: Upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold, can be managed with acetaminophen or ibuprofen prescribed by the doctor. It may help subdue mucus secretion and prevent exacerbation of ear irritation. Infections due to bacteria could be treated with antibiotics.
- Removal of the foreign body: If ear pulling is due to a foreign body, the doctor may inspect the ear canal and remove the foreign body.
- Topical ointments: Babies with eczema or psoriasis could be prescribed corticosteroid-based ointments to control the itching. Your baby’s doctor may also prescribe other lotions or creams based on the extent of the skin problem, its type, and its severity.
Most cases of ear pulling in babies can be managed at home with positive results.
How To Manage Baby’s Ear-Pulling Behavior At Home?
Parents may try the following interventions to manage the ear-pulling behavior and prevent the serious causes behind ear-pulling behavior in babies.
- Put mittens on the baby’s hands. If the baby pulls their ears out of habit, you may put mittens on their hands. It may help prevent ear-pulling from becoming a habit in the long run.
- Provide the baby alternatives for self-soothing. You may provide the baby with toys or offer them a pacifier. Provide the pacifier once the baby is older than four weeks and breastfeeding is established. Choose a one-piece pacifier, which will not break when placed in the baby’s mouth (9).
- Dry the baby’s ears adequately after a bath. It could help reduce the risk of otitis externa caused by bacterial or fungal infections.
- Do not use cotton swabs to clean a baby’s ears. Ear canals are self-cleaning, and using cotton swabs may push earwax deeper (10). Use a damp cloth to clean the external ear of the baby. If you notice or suspect excess earwax buildup, speak to a doctor about its removal.
- Manage the baby’s skin conditions. Speak to a pediatrician or pediatric dermatologist to learn ways of managing any existing skin issues. Several skin conditions, such as eczema, are chronic and require long-term management to prevent itching and discomfort.
- Provide the baby with teethers. A teething baby could be provided with teethers, which the little one can gnaw during the teething phase. Pick one-piece teethers made from non-toxic materials.
- Use a cool-mist humidifier. Humidifying the ambient air in the baby’s room could make it easier for them to breathe. It could be especially helpful for babies with upper respiratory infections or allergies. The decline in irritation while breathing could reduce the chances of the baby pulling their ears.
- Do not let the baby sleep with a bottle in their mouth. It could increase the risk of the liquid or milk flowing into the nasopharynx, reaching the middle ear through the Eustachian tube. Accumulated milk or other fluids in the middle ear could increase the risk of bacterial infections (11).
- Maintain good hygiene. Good hygiene reduces the risk of several infections, including ear infections. Wash your hands before handling the baby and their personal belongings. Instruct the baby’s sibling to do the same. Wash the baby’s hands when they come from outdoors, and disinfect their toys with a baby-safe disinfectant periodically.
- Get the baby vaccinated. Vaccination against flu and pneumonia could help protect the baby against these infections, preventing the symptoms that often cause a baby to pull their ears.
Babies pulling their ears is a common occurrence and seldom a cause for concern. An ear infection is usually the most common serious cause behind pulling ears. Adequate care and hygiene could reduce the risk of infections in babies. You may also provide the baby with alternative items for self-soothing. If the baby’s ear pulling persists over a week or is accompanied by other symptoms, do not hesitate to speak to a pediatrician.
2. Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection); Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
3. Swimmer’s Ear in Children; American Academy of Pediatrics
4. Flying with Baby: Parent FAQs; American Academy of Pediatrics
5. Ear Infection (Otitis Media); Cleveland Clinic
6. Eczema; Harvard Medical School
7. A deeper look at psoriasis; Harvard Medical School
8. Your Infant is Teething; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
9. Pacifiers and Thumb Sucking; American Academy of Pediatrics
10. Earwax buildup; American Academy of Pediatrics
11. Ear Infections in Children; National Institutes of Health