Why Do Babies Clench Their Fists And When Do They Unclench?

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It may be troubling seeing your baby clenching their fists practically all of the time, even though you want them to hold on to toys or your fingers.

Usually, babies under six months hold their fists clenched most of the time. However, if a baby aged more than six months does so, it might be a cause for concern and necessitate medical care.

Read on to know more about the causes of clenched fists in infants, when you can expect your baby to unclench their fists to hold other objects, and why some newborns don’t clench their fists.

In This Article

Why Do Babies Clench Their Fists?

Palmar grasp reflex in babies

Image: Shutterstock

The palmar grasp reflexiAn involuntary reflex that causes babies to fold their fingers around an object upon pressure or touch. is the reason behind clenched fists in fetuses and babies younger than six months. This primitive reflex is a normal part of a baby’s development and disappears after the age of six months as the baby’s brain matures. You can visualize this when you stroke the back of your little one’s palm and they immediately try to grip your finger with their small fingers. Once you try to let go of the hand, they will slowly release that tight grip (1).

Some anecdotal beliefs state that clenched fists indicate stress or hunger in babies. However, this is a normal reflex that may have been required for survival in the evolutionary past. You may look for other signs to understand stress or hunger in babies.

Spastic cerebral palsy or brain damage may cause the persistence of palmar grasp reflex beyond the age of six months. Brain damage may indicate shaken baby syndromeiBrain injury resulting from shaking the baby forcefully and vigorously, also considered child abuse. . Consult a pediatrician for necessary evaluation. Early identification and interventions could improve the quality of life and may prevent severe dysfunctions (2).

protip_icon Quick fact
Studies suggest that the palmar grasp reflex helps diagnose pathologies, such as cerebral palsy or peripheral nerve injury. It also creates basic motor patterns that help develop voluntary abilities (2).

Why Do Babies Clench Fists While Feeding?

It is not just while feeding, but while sleeping, playing, or any other time that an infant under six months of age may clench their fists due to the primitive grasp reflex.

Clenched fists are normal until six months of age, and it may not be a useful method to understand your baby’s hunger. You may look for other feeding cues, including (3):

Putting hands in the mouth is a cue from a hungry baby

Image: Shutterstock

  • Arm and leg movements
  • Sucking sounds
  • Looking towards you
  • Crying

Why Do Some Babies Not Clench Their Fists?

Baby unclenches fists

Image: Shutterstock

Clenched fists in babies are seen from the fetal stage to six months after birth. The palmar grasp reflex usually appears from the 16th week of gestation.

The following reasons may cause babies not to clench their fists.

  • Amniotic band syndrome: Absence of clenched fists in fetal life may indicate amniotic band syndrome. This is a rare condition where strands or bands of amniotic sac wrap the fetus’ fingers, toes, or any other part of the body. The severity of amniotic band syndrome depends on the affected location and the tightness of the wrap. Milder wraps can be surgically removed after birth without causing any physical damage. However, tighter wraps may permanently damage the fingers (4).
  • Peripheral nerveiA network of nerves that lie outside the brain and spinal cord. injuries: Weak palmar grasp reflex or unclenched fists before the age of six months could occur due to injuries of the peripheral nerve roots, plexusiA branching bundle of interlacing nerves and vessels. , and spinal cord (2). Babies who have peripheral nerve damage due to complications in labor may develop unclenched fists.
protip_icon Point to consider
Peripheral nerve injury in a newborn generally occurs when the baby is large for gestational age or has shoulder dystociaiA condition that occurs when a baby’s shoulders get stuck in the birth canal during labor. . In such cases, parents should regularly check with the doctor (2).
  • Floppy babies: In this condition, the baby’s muscle tone is lost due to congenital reasons. The baby feels limp like a rag doll when carried in your arms.

Appropriate prenatal care and cesarean sections may help reduce the risk of peripheral neuropathyiCondition where the peripheral nerves are damaged. . You may discuss with your obstetrician to choose the right method of delivery to avoid birth injuries. 

When Should Babies Unclench Their Fists?

The baby will gradually begin grasping, holding, and releasing objects with their tiny fingers as the reflex fades. Babies do this on their own as their little brain matures. Unclenching of fists indicates a maturation of higher motor centers of the brain and development of voluntary motor functions (5) (2).

What if a three-month old baby doesn’t unclench their fist even momentarily?

Then you should approach your pediatrician. Persistence fist clenching without even a transient opening may point to some serious condition like spasticityiA condition where speech and movement are hampered due to rigid or stiff muscles. .

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Do closed fists always mean the baby is hungry?

No. If your baby has a clenched fist, it does not necessarily have to mean that they are hungry. It might just be a developmental reflex. However, to be sure, you may check for other signs of hunger as well.

2. When should I be worried about clenched fists?

If your baby has their fists clenched all the time tightly and does not unclench them easily, it might indicate an underlying neurological problem. However, it is advised to consult with the doctor regarding the same for a confirmed diagnosis.

3. Why do babies clench their fists when sleeping?

Babies usually clench their fists while sleeping as a result of the primitive grasp reflex and not due to any developmental disorder.

4. What is clenched fist syndrome?

Clenched fist syndrome is when a person keeps one or both hands tightly clenched. It can be seen in various age groups. This is considered a psychological disorder since there won’t be any somatic pathologiesiA psychiatric condition that makes a person overly anxious about their physical symptoms. causing the condition. However, it can be associated with swelling and stiffness. These symptoms can be due to continuous clenching of the hands. Doctors may look for all possible causes of clenched fists and evaluate the mental health to establish the diagnosis (6).

Often, babies open up their fists a little later than expected. You need not worry as it is normal. Going through developmental milestones later than others is not something that should bother you, as it takes time for some babies to cope with the changes they notice within themselves. If your baby’s clenched fists remain the same beyond six months of age, you should consult the baby’s pediatrician. It may indicate an issue that needs to be given immediate attention and starting treatment as early as possible can be beneficial.

Infographic: Underlying Causes Of Fist Clenching In Babies

Although fist clenching in babies is generally a typical behavior that is expected to go away after a few months, there may also be underlying conditions causing them to clench their fists. So give this infographic a read to learn about these conditions and seek timely medical help.

causes of fist clenching in babies (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • The palmar grasp reflex causes the fetuses and babies under six months to keep their fists clenched most of the time.
  • Unclenching of fists indicates proper neuromotor development enabling babies to hold and grasp objects.
  • The persistence of clenched fists beyond six months could indicate an underlying neurological issue. Talk to your pediatrician if your baby keeps its fists clenched or doesn’t try to grasp objects or items even after six months.
baby clenched fists_illustration

Image: Stable Diffusion/MomJunction Design Team

References

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

1. Newborn Reflexes; American Academy of Pediatrics
2. Aabha A. Anekar and Bruno Bordoni; Palmar Grasp Reflex;StatPearls Publishing (2020)
3. Caring for Your Baby; Health Information Translations
4. Amniotic Band Syndrome; UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital
5. Newborn Reflexes; Stanford Children’s Health
6. The clenched fist syndrome: case report of a clinical rarity of special interest for psychiatrists and hand surgeons; BMC Psychiatry

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Dr. Neema Shrestha is a pediatrician with a special interest in the field of neonatology. She has an overall experience of five years working in the field. Currently working in Kathmandu, Nepal, she completed her MBBS from Kasturba Medical College, Manipal in 2008, Diploma in Child Health from D.

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