Watching your baby sleep has to be one of the most amazing experiences of early parenthood. And not just because it means that you've finally lulled them into a state of quiet unconsciousness and can finally take a breather — it's also because they are genuinely adorable. Nothing's sweeter than a sleeping baby, right? But even as they're sleeping they're full of mystery. You're wondering what's going on in their heads — are they dreaming? And you're asking yourself why they move the way they do — like what makes them sleep with their hands up?
Well, there are a couple of reasons that your cuddly little bundle might opt for the cheerleader position. One possibility is that they are a "starfish" type of sleeper. That's when your baby sleeps on their back with their legs out and arms up, according to Mother & Baby. They tend to wake often and regularly, but will settle back to sleep if you rock or feed them, as sleep expert Jo Tantum told The Sun.
A good sleep aid is to get a small cloth, tuck it down your shirt so it smells like you, and give it to your baby to help comfort them. You'll also want to help them fall asleep on their own cycle. So watch for indications that they're tired — like staring blankly into space, getting irritable, or rubbing their eyes or ears — then settle them down for a snooze with the cloth, she advised.
The other reason your baby might sleep with their hands up is that they've been startled. We're all born with an instinct known as the Moro reflex, explained Parents. That's when a baby gets startled by an unexpected noise, flings up their arms, spreads their fingers, and looks like they're trying to grab something (that would be you). Then they'll relax and bring their arms back down, explained the article.
This could happen even if the noise is something completely normal, like the sound of a pot clanking. That's because "newborns haven't learned to differentiate between common and uncommon noises," Richard Polin, MD, director of the division of neonatology at Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City, told Parents. Eventually your baby's brain will learn to distinguish normal sounds from unusual ones, and will stop this basic reflex. That usually happens at around 3 to 6 months of age, according to Mama Natural, when your baby is starting to feel more secure and is gaining more control of their movements.
So what should you do about it? First, you should know that the startle reflex is completely normal and healthy — the only thing about it that should worry you is if your baby doesn't seem to have it. In that case, speak to your pediatrician, who might do a test like this to see if your baby's Moro reflex is on point:
But if the startle reflex is keeping your baby from sleeping, you might wonder what you can do to help them sleep better. One technique is to keep your baby as close to your body as you can when you're laying them down, advised Healthline. Come away gently only once their back is touching the mattress. Extending that feeling of support may be enough to prevent them from experiencing a falling sensation, which is one cause of the Moro reflex.
Another technique often used is swaddling, as explained on Mama Natural. This keeps your baby from raising their arms in the first place, so they stay in a deeper state of sleep and don't wake themselves up.
However, Ask Dr. Sears recommended against trying to get your baby to sleep too deeply. It might be more convenient for you, but it could be risky for the baby. As the site put it, "babies do what they do because they’re designed that way," and lighter, more active sleep is their built-in protective mechanism. There can be very good reasons for them to wake themselves up, like having a stuffy nose and needing to breathe, or being cold and needing warmth, explained the article. Your baby's naturally light sleep cycles are what enables them to respond to potentially threatening circumstances.
So whatever the reason for your baby's upraised arms, rest assured that there's nothing wrong with them, and then try to enjoy it while it lasts. It can look hilarious, and gives you plenty of opportunities to snatch some amazing videos and GIFs.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.