When it comes to infants, parents can drive themselves crazy reading into every nonverbal cue they give. You're constantly on the lookout for common ailments like ear infections, so when you see tiny hands heading towards those ears, your antennae prick up. But are infections always the culprit? When parents ask, "why is my baby pulling at their ears?" they're likely to come across a large spectrum of explanations.
Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist Melanie Potock tells Romper that some of the causes don't actually have anything to do with the ear itself. Teething pain, for instance, can cause nerves in the mouth to carry pain signals to the ear. Similarly, Potock says, the proximity of the throat to the ears can cause referred pain that results in ear pulling as a reaction to a sore throat, making detection of the actual problem pretty challenging for a parent.
Additionally, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) could be a factor. According to Potock, "When babies suffer from severe reflux (the stomach contents rising up into the oral cavity), inflammation can occur on any tissue that the stomach washes over. This can include the sinuses, throat, and contact with the Eustachian tube." If you've already observed your baby to suffer from GERD, it could well be the cause of their ear distress.
Of course, reminds Potock, sometimes it really is about his actual ear. There may be fluid behind his ear drum, a more advanced ear infection, or inflammation in the external ear (like swimmer's ear). If you suspect one of these is causing his fixation on his ears, you'll want to get him in to see his pediatrician to discuss treatment options.
One last possibility is presented by Potock's co-author Dr. Nimali Fernando: simple self-discovery of the ears. As babies begin to gain control of their hands, they are constantly exploring the body parts they find attached to them. Your little one might be pulling on her ears simply because they're there to pull. Maybe you should take your cues on life satisfaction from her. (Except for when you're wearing earrings and she decides to give your ear a tug, too.)