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What Is Grunting Baby Syndrome?

Updated April 3, 2020

Does your baby grunt especially loudly during bowel movements? Do they sometimes cry when trying to pass stool?

Although you might be tempted to pass these off as symptoms of constipation, if you answered yes, there’s a chance your baby could be suffering from Grunting Baby Syndrome.

While this condition might sound silly, it can actually bring quite a bit of discomfort and pain to your little one.

What is GBS? What causes it — and more importantly, how can you bring your baby some relief?

Table of Contents

  • What Is Grunting Baby Syndrome?
  • What Does Grunting Baby Syndrome Look Like?
  • How Can I Help GBS?
  • When It’s Not GBS
  • The Bottom Line

What Is Grunting Baby Syndrome?

At first glance, Grunting Baby Syndrome might look like constipation, but if the stool inside your baby’s diaper is soft, chances are those noises they’re making are being caused by something else (1) .

With GBS the grunting isn’t caused by hard stool, but instead by baby’s body not recognizing the signals it needs to go to the bathroom — we’ll explain.

Have you ever tried to rub your stomach while patting your head simultaneously? It takes a level of coordination that we’re not born with. Believe it or not, this kind of coordination is also required to have a bowel movement.

To pass stool, our stomach muscles have to flex, while at the same time our bodies tell our pelvic muscles to relax. Grunting helps babies flex their stomach muscles, so they’ll often do this to help pass waste (2) .

Unfortunately, while the grunting helps your abdominal muscles flex, it doesn’t help the pelvic muscles to relax. So, your baby has to grunt and push the stool down repeatedly until their pelvic muscles get the memo to relax and let the stool pass.

This can cause both pain and discomfort until your baby learns to coordinate these two muscle groups.

What Does Grunting Baby Syndrome Look Like?

Perhaps you’re beginning to suspect your baby is suffering from GBS, but you want to be sure.

If your baby is experiencing GBS, they will likely also do the following things when trying to have a bowel movement:

  • Crying or screaming.
  • Straining.
  • Turning red, or even dark purple.
  • Squeezing their abdominal muscles.

If your baby is suffering from GBS they will experience several, or all, of these symptoms for 5-10 minutes before finally passing stool and feeling comfortable once more.

How Can I Help GBS?

The bad news is there’s nothing you can do to stop or cure Grunting Baby Syndrome in your baby. The good news? It will clear up on its own by the time your baby is 3-4 months old, so when it comes to GBS there really isn’t much to worry about.

Some doctors might tell you to ease your baby’s discomfort by stimulating their anus with either cotton balls and Vaseline or an anal thermometer, but this may hurt more than it helps.

If you continuously use stimulants to help your baby pass stools, it may take them longer to learn how to relax their pelvic muscles on their own.

Sometimes Doing Nothing Is Best

When It’s Not GBS

Not all baby grunting is caused by Grunting Baby Syndrome. Grunting can be a symptom of several different conditions.

If your baby’s grunting episodes are not followed quickly by a bowel movement, or when the baby is grunting with every breath, then GBS is likely not the cause. One of the following conditions might be the reason.

1. Constipation

While constipation isn’t the underlying cause of GBS, it can cause your baby to grunt. This just got confusing, didn’t it? Don’t worry, it’s fairly easy to tell the difference in constipation and GBS.

When suffering from constipation, your baby may:

  • Grunt but not have a bowel movement right after the grunting episode.
  • Go 3-4 days between bowel movements.
  • Have hard, compact stools when they have a bowel movement.

Luckily constipation is usually fairly easy to fix. It could be caused by dehydration, or if your baby is formula-fed, there might be something in the formula may be the cause (3) .

If you think your baby is experiencing constipation, contact your doctor. They can tell you if there’s something at home to try, and make sure it’s not caused by a more serious disorder such as hypothyroidism or Hirschsprung’s disease.

Although both of these conditions are rare, it’s better to be safe when it comes to your little one.

2. Acid Reflux

Sometimes when babies suffer from Gastro Esophageal Reflux (GER) they can also grunt. GER is caused when your baby’s lower esophageal sphincter is underdeveloped and allows milk and stomach acid to leak back into your baby’s throat (4) .

This can cause your baby to experience symptoms such as colic, crying, vomiting, and yes, even grunting.

Luckily, acid reflux is easy to diagnose and treat. Your doctor might simply tell you to adjust your baby’s position during and after feedings, or, if you’re nursing, to avoid foods that could make the acid reflux worse. These may include spicy foods and carbonated beverages (5) .

In more severe cases they can also prescribe antacids and special formulas to help your little one.

In most cases, acid reflux in infants resolves on its own, but in some extreme cases, surgery may be performed to prevent the stomach acid from moving up.

3. Respiratory Distress

Is your baby seemingly grunting with every breath they take? If so, this could be a sign of a serious respiratory issue (6) . Grunting with every breath could be a sign of pneumonia, asthma, meningitis, or even heart problems.

If the grunting is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it’s important to contact your doctor:

  • Weight loss.
  • Lethargy.
  • Fever.
  • Blueish tint on your baby’s tongue.
  • Longer pauses between breaths.
  • Nasal flaring.
  • Belly breathing or drawing in the chest when breathing.

While in most cases these issues can be helped, they can also cause long-term damage if left untreated. We can’t say it enough — if your child is experiencing any combination of these symptoms, it’s important to contact your doctor immediately.

4. Other Causes You Should Know

Here are some other causes of grunting in babies. They are rare but can be lethal when they happen, with or without signs of respiratory distress. It is important that parents can recognize them and seek proper medical attention when they happen. We provide a list of some of them here along with their associated symptoms besides grunting and respiratory difficulties:

  • Sepsis (blood poisoning usually due to infection): Fever, fussiness, confusion, floppiness, a decrease in urination, and jaundice (skin color turning yellow).
  • Meningitis (infection of the membrane layer protecting brain and brain stem): Fever, stiff neck, vomiting, floppiness, rash, refusal to eat, swelling of the fontanelle (the soft spot on baby’s head), cold hands and feet, fatigue, and seizure.
  • Heart Failure: Trouble gaining weight, too tired to eat, fatigue, sleeping too much, swelling of body parts, skin turning blue, and sweating after feeding or play.

The Bottom Line

It’s not any fun to hear what you once thought was just a cute sound your baby made can actually be Grunting Baby Syndrome. The good news is many issues that involve grunting are easy to fix or will fix themselves.

(Who would have thought your baby’s body would actually have to learn to poop correctly?)

It’s important to remember that you’re your child’s advocate. If you feel there’s something more going on, whether it be constipation, acid reflux, infections, heart failure, or a serious respiratory issue, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor and get your baby looked at. Trust your gut! (No pun intended.)

What is Grunting Baby Syndrome? What causes it — and more importantly, how can you bring your baby some relief?

Why Does My Newborn Grunt?

It may sound strange to you, but the occasional grunts coming from your newborn are perfectly normal.

As a new parent, you listen to every little sound and movement your baby makes. Most of the time, your newborn’s gurgling noises and squirms seem so sweet and helpless. But when they grunt, you may begin to worry that they’re in pain or need help.

Newborn grunting is usually related to digestion. Your baby is simply getting used to mother’s milk or formula. They may have gas or pressure in their stomach that makes them feel uncomfortable, and they haven’t learned yet how to move things through.

While most grunting is normal, if your baby is grunting with every breath, has a fever, or appears to be in distress, see your doctor.

This grunting may be a sign of a more serious respiratory problem and needs immediate attention.

When your baby grunts, it usually means they’re learning how to have a bowel movement. They haven’t yet figured out how to relax the pelvic floor while also using abdominal pressure to move stool and gas through their system. Their abdominal muscles are weak, and they must bear down with their diaphragm against their closed voice box (glottis). This leads to a grunting noise.

They will grunt until they can figure it out, so it may take a few months for your newborn to produce a bowel movement or pass gas without grunting. Some people call this grunting baby syndrome (GBS). Rest assured, it’s fairly common and rarely a sign of something serious.

Babies may also look like they’re straining, and a newborn’s head may turn purple or red in color. This may last for several minutes, according to an article in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition (JPGN).

This shouldn’t be confused with constipation. Your newborn’s system is working correctly to produce excrement. Your baby just hasn’t figured out how to move it through. While the grunting is unpleasant, your newborn simply needs to get used to its new world.

You should confirm with your doctor that your baby’s grunting is normal.

If your grunting baby is simply learning how to have a bowel movement, the only true cure is for your newborn to learn how to relax their anus while pushing with their abdomen. This is something your baby will learn with time through trial and error.

Some doctors recommend that parents help their newborn by providing anal stimulation. This involves use of an anal thermometer or a piece of cotton to help stimulate the bowel. While this method usually works to help your baby have a bowel movement, it may have negative side effects in the long run. Your baby may eventually become dependent on this method to have a bowel movement. According to JPGN, repeated use of this method will delay your infant’s ability to learn the correct process for passing stool.

In most cases, the grunting starts in the first months of life and resolves on its own after a few weeks. Every baby is different. It all depends on how long it takes for your newborn to master the coordination of its bowel movements.

The grunting of a healthy child learning how to deal with digestion is different from the grunting of a sick baby.

Grunting with every breath is never normal. Grunting at the end of every breath could be a sign of respiratory distress.

If your baby is grunting often and also has other signs of illness, such as a fever, or appears to be in distress, see your doctor. This could be a sign of a serious medical condition and requires immediate attention.

Grunting with breathing could be a sign of:

  • asthma
  • pneumonia
  • sepsis
  • meningitis
  • heart failure (which causes fluid to build up in the lungs and a shortness of breath)

Check for other signs of respiratory distress or illness to determine if your baby’s grunts are normal or a sign of another problem. Other signs of respiratory problems include:

  • blue tongue or skin
  • weight loss
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • nasal flaring
  • pauses in breathing

Watching and hearing your baby struggle may be difficult, but in the end, it’s important to let them figure it out on their own.

Grunting may seem a little scary, but it usually serves a very useful and healthy purpose for your baby. If your baby is healthy, active, appears happy, and is eating well, grunting is rarely a sign of illness.

See your doctor for a checkup if you have questions or concerns about your grunting baby.

And treat grunting with every breath as a medical emergency.

Last medically reviewed on December 21, 2017

Newborn grunting isn’t uncommon and usually relates to bowel movements, but there are certain times when you should be concerned.