It’s natural for babies to play with their ears after first discovering them, yet it could be a tell-tale sign of a possible ear infection. Some of the symptoms of an earache and ear infection include crying, irritability and refusing to feed, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, and flu symptoms. Scratching the ear could also be related to teething pain or a symptom of irritation or discomfort in babies.
Most babies develop an early fascination with their ears as they do with their hands and feet, which is lovely to witness.
Yet this fascination could result in your baby scratching its ears, causing them to bleed.
This happens for a good reason, and parents should recognize that something is causing this odd behavior.
First-time parents take a bit of time to develop their sea legs as far as baby care is concerned and pure fascination can quickly switch to deep concern and anxiety.
If giggles and happy screeches accompany ear tugging, you can engulf yourself in these special moments.
When your baby is visibly upset and crying or whimpering while tugging and scratching their ears, you should look for other signs and symptoms that might be causing pain or irritation.
Let’s look at what causes this distressing behavior and how you can help your little one.
Babies have a fascination with ears
Newborn babies are so adorable, and most parents can endlessly watch as their little ones develop basic dexterity skills. The early days are almost like witnessing a miracle occur in slow motion.
Your baby will immediately be fascinated with their hands and fingers and flex those little arms, sometimes accidentally smacking themselves.
Once your little one discovers their ears, the fascination will grow and may develop into a temporary habit until something else attracts their attention, like your ears, nose, cheeks, or hair.
Babies develop a firm grip and will grip and tug on anything within reach. You guessed it, their ears are fair game, mainly because they are a discovery, and your little one can’t see their ears.
Babies self-soothe by sucking on a pacifier or their hands and fingers but playing with their ears also helps to soothe them as it feels comforting and relaxing.
This usually happens when your little one is tired or between feeding.
Some babies also play with their ears while feeding, which is normal. This is all part of early development, but there are times when ear scratching and tugging tell a different story.
Infant ear structure and development
Babies and young children are more prone to ear infections because their ear tubes are positioned horizontally as opposed to older children and adults whose ear tubes restructure into a more vertical angle.
Horizontal ear tubes do not drain moisture from the ears, and vertical ear tubes exacerbate the onset of ear infections.
Eustachian ear tubes connecting the middle ear to the nasal passage are shorter, narrower, and more horizontal in young children, making air and fluid travel more difficult.
Infections generally related to colds, flu, or allergies cause the eustachian tube to become swollen, pushing against the eardrum and causing inflammation and pain.
This is extremely common in babies between the ages of 3 months and 3 years old for the following reasons:
- The size and length of their eustachian tubes.
- Higher susceptibility to infection in general. Babies are still developing their immune systems.
- Increased exposure to infection. Daycare centers are a good example.
- Use of a pacifier. The continuous sucking motion creates an imbalance of air in the middle ear.
- Exposure to cigarette smoke in the household.
- Living in an area where there is a level of air pollution.
The eustachian tubes become blocked with secretion and prevent air from reaching the middle ear.
The secretion may contain bacteria and viruses, which result in middle ear infection if left untreated.
According to the National Institute of Health, five out of every six children will experience an ear infection before the age of three.
Most earaches or infections tend to clear up on their own, but it is always best to consult your doctor.
With earache or middle ear infection, your little one will tug or pull at their ears in response to the pain and irritation and may even end up scratching their ears to soothe the pain.
Symptoms of an earache and ear infection include:
- Refusing to feed
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Fluid draining from the ears
- Loss of balance in toddlers and older children
- Runny nose
- Allergy, cold, or flu symptoms
- Just recovered from a cold or flu
The most common type of ear infection is otitis media, a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum, and parts of the middle ear become infected and swollen.
An ear infection is serious and can lead to loss of hearing. If you suspect your little one may have an ear infection, you should visit your doctor urgently.
The sooner the infection is brought under control and eliminated, the better.
Other reason for ear tugging and scratching
There are several reasons your little one is fascinated with their ears and is not simply enjoying a discovery.
Parents need to be constantly on the lookout for signs and symptoms that might drive their little ones to scratch and cause their ears to bleed.
Babies develop dry skin for many reasons, which often result in itchiness. Your little one might be rubbing or tugging on their ears to deal with an itch which is normal behavior.
Mild skin dryness and itchiness mostly dissipate, but you should do what you can to reduce the irritation.
Heat and chemicals in soaps and shampoos are leading causes of dry skin. Washing your baby’s hair too often can lead to a dry scalp which will cause itchiness.
Air-conditioning and laundry detergent are also culprits that cause dry and itchy skin. Sweating may also cause itchy skin, which in most cases can be controlled.
Eczema is common in babies, and you should be able to see signs of this on your baby’s skin.
Eczema signs and symptoms include:
- Dry and scaly skin patches, which are often thick and hard.
- Redness and skin swelling.
- Tiny skin bumps that crust and produces pus.
- Sensitive skin resulting in irritability and crying that may affect sleep and feeding.
There is no cure for eczema, but your doctor can give your little one the best treatment to alleviate the symptoms.
Teething and general pain
Teething pain can easily be confused with an ear infection as the nerves around the gums and mouth go to the ears.
The big difference between teething pain and an ear infection is that an ear infection usually develops after your little one has had a cold or flu, and fever typically accompanies the infection.
General pain, discomfort, or irritation caused by a diaper rash or other conditions may trigger your baby to tug and scratch their ears, who will cry and scream.
Your little one may develop a runny nose, fever, and droll more than usual.
Treating the cause of itchy ears in baby
To prevent your little one from scratching their ears for no apparent reason, you need to go directly to the cause, which is sharp little nails.
Regular grooming of your baby’s nails will help to prevent the sight of bloody ears.
If the ear obsession is endless, try to pop mittens on your baby’s hands to prevent scratching.
An excellent way to break this temporary habit is to introduce other things that demand attention, like teething rings, textured and colorful toys, a carousel over your baby’s crib, and playtime with mom and dad.
Not all earaches are related to infection, but they should still be treated as serious. Cotton earbuds may irritate the ear canal while cleaning your baby’s ears which will feel like an itch.
Ear wax protects the lining of the ear canal, and over-cleaning with earbuds removes this protective layer. It’s best to avoid earbuds.
While bathing your baby or washing their hair, try and prevent soap or shampoo suds from entering the ear canal.
This will cause irritation, and your little one will try and dig into the affected ear.
Teething pain can be debilitating for some babies. If a cold teething ring isn’t doing the trick, ask your doctor to recommend baby pain medication.
The baby teething period is a roller coaster for most parents, and vigilance is vital.
You should consult your doctor if you suspect your little one may develop an ear infection. It is always best practice to contact your doctor or pediatrician if you suspect your little one has an earache or is developing an ear infection.
High fever and bloody or pus-like discharge from the ears are signs that your little one needs urgent medical attention.
Ear infection prevention tips
As a concerned parent, you can help prevent your little one from developing ear infections by being proactive.
Listed below are four things you can do:
- Vaccinate your child. Vaccinated children tend to get fewer ear infections than unvaccinated children.
- Breastfeed for at least the first 12 months. Breastmilk contains essential antibodies that help to protect your little one and develops their immune system. Your little one should not be breastfed or bottle-fed lying down, as this reduces the chance of fluid running into the middle ear.
- Wash your hand regularly and keep away from sick people. This helps to limit the spread of bacteria and viruses to your little one.
- Avoid second-hand cigarette smoke. Children exposed to second-hand smoke are three times more likely to develop ear infections than those not exposed.
Should I call my doctor if my little one is bleeding from the ear?
This will concern any parent, and a check-up will put the issue into perspective.
Calling your doctor is good practice, as early detection and treatment of any condition will promote a return to good health and alleviate your child’s pain and suffering—untreated infections can often lead to severe complications and consequences.
My little one scratches not only his ears but also his face. What can I do?
Trim and groom your little one’s nails regularly. Don’t wait for a scratch mark as a sign to groom; instead, get into the habit of doing it every few days, as baby nails grow very fast.
If your baby is constantly doing this, try using mittens or a pair of socks over his hands. Don’t be afraid to call your pediatrician for advice.
Babies are usually fascinated with the discovery of their ears and will play with them, sometimes to self-soothe.
The ear fascination phase will pass as other things attract your baby’s attention, but ear tugging and scratching are also a baby’s way of communicating a problem.
Parents and caregivers need to recognize the difference between regular play and a plea for help.
Ear infections in young children are common and mostly dissipate on their own but can develop into a severe condition that could threaten normal hearing.
Parents should also consult their doctor to start early treatment if their little one develops an ear infection.