Why Do Babies Rub Their Eyes And How To Prevent Them From Doing It?

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Baby rubbing eyes could be a sign of exhaustion and sleepiness (1). However, recent studies have demonstrated that young ones exposed to excess screen time because of using devices like smartphones early in life may develop eye fatigue, which could further lead to increased rubbing of eyes (2). Reading this post could help you understand some probable reasons for babies rubbing their eyes and ways to prevent and manage the condition.

Why Does Your Baby Rub Eyes?

Besides sleepiness and tiredness, there are other possible reasons why babies rub their eyes.

1.  Baby is curious

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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

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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 their 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

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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

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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 particles scratching the eye surface.

Dr. Yuna Rapoport, MD, MPH, a US-based board-certified and fellowship-trained ophthalmologist, says, “If an older child is rubbing their eyes and cannot stop, it may be a sign of early keratoconus (irregular shape of the cornea) and rubbing the eye will cause it to progress. Additionally, incessant rubbing could also signify vernal conjunctivitis (an extreme form of allergic conjunctivitis).

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.

Quick fact
Although uncommon, teething, especially on the upper jaw, can cause pain and soreness in the eye, which may make the babies rub their eyes and get rid of the pain.

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?

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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.

Quick tip
Blocked tear ducts can also cause a baby to rub their eyes. Massaging around the eye can unclog the ducts and subside the need for eye rubbing (10).

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).

  • 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. At what age do babies start rubbing their eyes?

Babies may begin rubbing their eyes from the early months of life. This can be due to various conditions such as eye irritation or blocked tear ducts. Some babies also rub their eyes when they are sleepy. You may look for the frequency of eye rubbing and other symptoms to seek medical care (7) (8).

2. Can rubbing eyes cause permanent damage in babies?

Usually, rubbing eyes may not cause permanent eye damage in babies. However, sometimes babies may rub their eyes when experiencing severe eye irritation due to serious eye conditions that can cause permanent eye damage. Severe and persistent eye rubbing can cause injuries such as breaking blood vessels in the eye or scratching the cornea. This may also lead to worsening glaucoma in some cases (9).

Your baby rubbing their eyes should not be a cause for concern. It might be because they are sleepy, tired, have excess exposure to gadgets or something went into their eyes. But it is advised that you keep their hands covered with mittens and also ensure that their nails are short so that they do not scratch themselves. In case your baby is not responding to flashing lights or has signs of an eye infection, get a consultation from a medical professional immediately to avoid any complications.

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. Infant Sleep; Department of Neurology, University of Columbia
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
7. Sleep in Infants (2-12 Months); Nationwide Children’s
8. The dangers of rubbing your eyes; Vision Eye Institute
9. Study: The most curious babies become the most curious toddlers; Johns Hopkins University
10. Tear-Duct Blockage; Kids Health From Nemours

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