A baby rubbing its eyes is usually a sign of fatigue and sleep readiness (1). Recent researches have also shown that children could have eye fatigue, which leads to eye rubbing due to excess use of digital devices such as smartphones early on in life (2).
In this post, MomJunction will tell you about the probable causes of eye rubbing in babies, preventive measures for the same, and much more.
Why Does Your Baby Rub Eyes?
Besides sleepiness and tiredness, there are other possible reasons why babies rub their eyes.
1. Baby is curious
Babies tend to get curious when they develop fine motor skills. Among the things they do then is experiment by touching every part of their body to understand how the body will respond (3).
2. Baby is wondered or amazed
When you notice that your baby is not tired and still rubs eyes, it may be due to the incredible visual stimulation they get while doing so. Babies love the feeling of closing their eyes, rubbing them, and repeating it to see all those visual patterns. You might have also noticed that when you close and rub your eyes, you can see patterns and lights in the closed eyelids. It may be the reason your baby rubs eyes often.
Preventive measure: Divert your baby’s attention by showing them something more interesting. As your baby’s attention span is short, they will get distracted easily.
3. Baby is sleepy
When babies rub their eyes and yawn, it means that they are sleepy and tired. But how does rubbing eyes help your child? When babies get tired, their eyes are fatigued. Just as a massage helps in relieving sore muscles, rubbing eyes helps during fatigue. By doing so, the baby gets relief from soreness and tension created in the muscles of the eyes, around the eyes, and on the eyelids.
Preventive measure: Watch your little one for signs of sleepiness and fatigue. Rubbing and yawning are common signs that indicate your baby requires a nap, says the Child Development Institute. If you notice these first signs of sleepiness, put your baby to sleep immediately to avoid fatigue (and eye rubbing).
Understand your baby’s sleep routine. Once a proper routine is set, ensure that the baby sleeps at a given time even if you are away from home. By doing so, you are not allowing your baby to become tired. When there is no trigger, there will be no eye rubbing.
4. Eyes are dry
Babies may also rub their eyes when they turn too dry. The eyes are protected by a tear film, which evaporates when it is exposed to air for a long time (4). This results in dry eyes, causing discomfort to babies, and they instinctively try to comfort themselves by rubbing their eyes. Because rubbing eyes stimulates tears, which restore moisture in the eyes.
5. There is something in their eyes
Your baby may also rub their eyes if something is irritating them. There could be crustiness around the eye, fluff, or a bit of dust in the eyes. These particles can irritate the eye so much that the baby may want to rub the eyes vigorously. But in this case, rubbing can cause more harm to your little one’s eyes as this may result in particle scratching the eye surface.
If rubbing of the eyes is seen along with crying and eyes turning red, it is a definitive signal that there is some particle in your baby’s eyes. In this case, dip a cotton ball in cold water and squeeze over the eyes slowly to flush away the particle. Wipe off any crustiness using a clean cotton cloth. If your baby is still experiencing irritation, take them to a healthcare provider.
Caution: Don’t use the same cotton plug for both the eyes.
Preventive measure: Do not leave your baby in a place where there is a lot of dust floating around in the air. If it is inevitable, protect the eyes using baby sunglasses.
Redness Of Eyes Can Also Be Because Of Conjunctivitis or Eye Flu (5).
In the case of conjunctivitis, there will be sticky discharge from the inner sides of the eyes as well as redness and watering of the eyes.
What to do
- Clean and wash the eyes with fresh tap water three to four times a day.
- Use sterile cotton balls to clean the sticky discharge from the eyes.
- Wait for a day or two; if the redness and discharge do not go, then consult a doctor.
How To Prevent Babies From Rubbing Their Eyes?
To minimize injuries and scratches to the eyes, you need to stop your baby from rubbing their eyes.
If your baby has a habit of rubbing the eyes, try covering their hands with mittens. The Stanford School of Medicine advises putting on baby shirts with full sleeves or baby mittens to cover the hands completely. You can also pull your baby’s long sleeve shirts to cover their hands to prevent them from rubbing their eyes.
You can also hold your little one’s hands away from the face if you think they may rub the eyes. Or, you can distract them by giving a toy or playing music and take their mind off of it.
Staying aware of the probable causes of eye rubbing in babies and preventive measures could help avoid injury or scratching of eyes due to excessive rubbing. It is also wise to know about the signs that might warrant medical intervention (5) (6).
- The baby is not responding to flashing lights past the newborn stage.
- Unless staring at an object, if the baby looks cross-eyed.
- If the baby constantly has strange eye coloration in flash photographs.
- Both eyes are functioning differently.
- Reaction to bright light or an eye infection that does not seem to fade.
- Need to tilt the head when trying to look at a specific object
- Inability to follow a toy with eyes.
- Drooping eyelids
- Eye pain and itchiness
- Constantly watery eyes
If you observe any of the above symptoms, consulting an eye specialist would be wise.
The bottom line is, there is no need to panic or worry if you see your little one rubbing their eyes. This could be a sign of sleepiness or eye fatigue. But if you notice some other odd symptoms like squint or poor eye movement and eye-hand coordination, pediatric consultation is recommended.
Does your baby often rub the eyes? What have you done about it? Let us know in the comment section below.
2. Give Your Child’s Eyes a Screen-Time Break: Here’s Why; Healthy Children; American Academy of Pediatrics
3. Karen E. Adolph and John M. Franchak; The development of motor behavior; National Center For Biotechnology Information (2016)
4. Brent A. Bell et al.; A Protective Eye Shield for Prevention of Media Opacities during Small Animal Ocular Imaging; National Center For Biotechnology Information (2015)
5. Eye Infections in Infants & Children; Healthy Children; American Academy of Pediatrics
6. Infants – Watery or Sticky Eyes; Choose Well Manchester