Why Does My Baby Scratch His Face While Breastfeeding?

As a first-time mom, I had prepared myself to be the best mom I could be, and for the most part, I succeeded. But I did have a few moments where I let my guard down, and although no real harm came to my little one, I had to up my game.

I made sure everything about my baby was in order, right down to the nitty-gritty details… well, almost. I got caught off guard by not realizing how fast babies’ nails grow.

I had trimmed his nails a few days earlier, but my little one had a scratch mark on his cheek, and when I looked at his nails, I couldn’t believe my eyes. They had grown so much in a few days, and I had to trim them again so he wouldn’t accidentally hurt himself anymore.

I quickly learned that as mothers, we can’t prevent our little ones from reaching for their faces and accidentally scratching themselves (or sometimes us), but we can curb the severity of scratching by constantly being one step ahead of our fast-growing babies.

Natural movements

An infant girl is learning how to use her hands, and as a result has started scratching her face.

One of the highlights of my pregnancy was listening to the sounds of my baby’s heartbeat during a routine ultrasound scan which almost sounded like a high-speed freight train. It was nice to see how my little one managed to move in such a confined space.

During pregnancy, your baby is already moving their hands around their face, which continues for the duration of your pregnancy.

Face touching is viewed as healthy behavior in the development of your unborn child, and this behavior also continues after your baby is born.

Newborn babies are still to develop motor skills, and the lack of control over their body and limbs in the first few weeks has them acting out on reflexes known as Moro Reflex or Startle Reflex.

This is when your baby reacts to sudden movements and loud sounds. Their natural reaction is to arch their back and push their arms and legs outward, which in many cases causes them to scratch their face accidentally.

Babies naturally raise their hands to their face as a form of preparedness or defence against whatever startles them, but as they gain more control over their body movements, this behaviour will be more controlled but will still linger throughout life.

In adults, we react to things by raising our arms to protect our face and head, so we can assume that this is an inherent reaction.

The five senses

An infant baby is learning his five senses of taste, touch, smell, sound, and feeling.

Infants have poor eyesight in their first weeks after birth but rely on all five of their senses to navigate the space around them.

Smell, taste, touch, feeling, and sound play a prominent role in a baby’s early ability to seek out what they want, which in most cases is warmth and milk (food). This is associated with the security of knowing mom is present and is the food provider.

Mothers have individual and unique smells, as does their breast milk which the little ones remember and are attracted to. A mom’s voice is music to her little one’s ears, and lastly, babies use their sense of taste to relate to their surroundings.

As soon as they develop enough motor skills, babies will put everything they can into their mouth, which helps them learn about things around them.

Breastfeeding is a time when your baby may use their arms and hands to get into their comfort zone.

In this time, they may fling their arms about as they anxiously fight to get to mom’s milk, but because they haven’t yet mastered the use of their limbs, they may actually prevent themselves from feeding. Your little one’s urgency to feed may lead to scratches, either to themselves or to mom.

Babies will flex their hands while feeding, much like a kitten will flex its paws when feeding. The flexing of their hands is a good sign as it means they are content, but this flexing can also lead to mom getting pinched, bruised, or even scratched as a result.

With developed eyesight and tuned motor skills, babies will begin developing a degree of independence in going after what they want. For example, when teething begins, babies put things into their mouth not so much for the taste but more to relieve the itchiness of their gums.

At this time, it is common for babies to try and put their fists in their mouth just for some relief from the irritation. They will also grind their gums on mom’s breast during feeding and enjoy chewing on mom’s finger.

Babies are sensitive, and when they get tired and want to rest, they have a tendency to want to rub their eyes. Not being very proficient in using their hands, babies will oftentimes scratch themselves unintentionally while trying to rub their eyes. What to do?

Prevention is better than cure

I just had to laugh when I thought about this because there is no cure for natural movements in response to our senses. So, prevention remains the only other alternative to limiting the potential damage caused by scratching.

Let’s remember that your little one is not the only victim of scratching; many mothers will testify to this fact as they would have and possibly still do tend to scratches on their faces, arms, and breast area inflicted by their bundle of joy.

So, just how can we prevent serious scratching?

Nails:

Mom is cutting her infant son's nails to prevent him from hurting himself when he scratches his face randomly.

Get to the root cause of scratching, especially scratching that breaks the skin. Short, well-kept nails will not scratch, but the fingers will rub the irritated area and provide temporary relief. Baby’s nails grow very fast, and mothers or caregivers need to keep the little one’s nails neatly trimmed and groomed at all times.

A baby may need to have their nails trimmed every few days, but you will have to inspect them every day. Their nails are rather thin and are not very hard, but they can get chipped, leaving sharp edges that can scratch the skin open.

An open scratch wound is susceptible to infection that can lead to all types of complications if it is not cleaned and allowed time to heal.

Using clean, warm water to clean the scratch area and to apply an antiseptic cream usually does the trick, but the wound will still have to be cared for and monitored to avoid any type of infection.

Skin:

Dry skin can be irritating and just begs to be scratched. Unfortunately, as soft and beautiful as a baby’s skin is, it is also very sensitive and requires special care. Too many baths can lead to dry skin, and certain baby soaps and shampoos may also be too harsh for your baby’s skin.

As a mom, you will know what type of skin your baby has and whether your little one is prone to skin irritations or conditions like eczema.

Moisture or humidity is a friend to your baby’s skin so take care not to have your little one in a heated room that dries up the air to the point that it affects normal humidity levels as dry skin leads to itchy skin.

In warmer climates, overdressing your baby can lead to heat rash, and the irritation it causes will lead to scratching.

Baby moisturizing creams help a great deal in soothing your baby’s skin, but it shouldn’t be a solution to what has actually caused dry skin in the first place. Instead, try and establish the actual cause of dry skin and address the problem from there.

Comforters and distractions:

Breastfeeding is a perfect opportunity for babies to exercise their motor skills. This is a time when babies flourish because of the comfort and security provided by skin-to-skin time with mom.

But sometimes, this is not enough, and babies will try and grab mom with their hands. When they do, they will let go immediately and continue trying to grab onto something else.

A burp cloth, baby blanket, your hand, or a soft toy can act as comfort or distraction that will calm your little one down enough to enjoy a peaceful feeding session. A good distraction is blowing on their hands, finger touching and finger counting.

You can even position your baby, so they hold your breast while feeding.

Emotional state:

If your baby is upset at the time you are going to breastfeed, you can expect those little arms to be waving all over the place, which can lead to unintentional scratching.

Similarly, if your baby has just had some stimulating playtime and hasn’t had time to wind down a bit, you can expect your baby to burn that energy off at your breast, and their best way to do this is to kick and wave their arms. 

FAQ’s

When do babies stop scratching their face?

Accidental face scratching is relatively short-lived and, in most cases, will last a few weeks after birth, but it can continue if there is cause to scratch, like with dry skin.

The more improved your baby’s motor skills become, the less unintentional scratching will occur. However, rubbing sleepy eyes can lead to scratches, so keep your little one’s nails trimmed and groomed.

Can I use mittens to stop my baby from scratching?

Yes, mittens do offer protection, so while breastfeeding, you can pop the mittens on your baby’s hands; however, you can’t have your baby in mittens all the time.

Babies need to learn how to use their hands, and they need to feel your skin with their bare hands as well. Limited use is fine and can save both of you from some nasty unwanted scratches. Nail care is still vitally important.

What do I do if the scratching persists?

You need to try and identify possible causes. Look at things like the type of linen you use for your baby, the washing powder and fabric softener you use, your body lotions and perfumes, pets in the home, air conditioner and heaters in the home, the quality of your tap water, the baby soap, shampoo, body moisturizers, and other products you use for your baby.

If the scratching persists after you have ruled out possible causes, the best advice is to consult your pediatrician. Never be afraid to discuss issues with your doctor concerning the wellbeing of both yourself and your little one.

Conclusion

All babies will scratch themselves at some time in their early weeks of life, period. This is a natural developmental occurrence that is unintentional.

Think about this; babies have to learn motor skills to control their movements, and scratching requires specific movements that are not yet mastered.

Babies quickly learn that applying pressure on an irritation brings relief, and babies learn to rub before they learn to scratch. Babies mostly cry when they have irritation, and scratching, although viewed as an intentional action among older children and adults, is not a skill that babies are born with.

All baby scratching is unintentional, and the phase will pass but preventing harm through care and sound environmental management is key.

Stick to good skincare principles and keep your baby’s nails trimmed short, making sure there are no sharp edges that may cause harm to you or your little one.

Hi! I'm Jennely. My hands and mind can't be still; neither can my three-year-old. So I'm either chasing him or my next project. I like to work smarter, not harder. This is why I write on topics that will help parents solve problems and enjoy precious moments with their little ones.

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