Why Babies Rub Their Faces on You – 9 Likely Explanations

One of the main reasons why your infant might rub their face against you is usually due to being hungry or tired.

However, face rubbing can also be a sign that your baby:

  • Has an itch or stuffy nose
  • Needs comfort and wants to be close to you
  • Is in an uncomfortable position or environment
  • Is experiencing frustration
  • Has begun teething.

Face rubbing begins as an involuntary, primitive behavior and becomes voluntary as babies gain coordination and motor skills.

Healthline supports this view: “Very young infants may just be exercising those newborn reflexes.”

My babies all rubbed their faces on either me or my husband when they were sleepy. It was something we both cherished because we knew that their utter dependency on us was fleeting.

Why Your Baby Rubs Her Face on You

There are reasons behind this seemingly odd, squirmy behavior in your baby, and they’re all perfectly natural.

Here’s what your little one’s face rubs could signify…

1. Rooting Reflex and Hunger

The rooting reflex is an involuntary and primal motor reflex in babies to help them locate the food source (the nipple of the breast or bottle), causing them to rub their heads from side to side in search of it.

This occurs from newborn age and lasts about 4-6 months.

2. Baby Is Tired

“In the same way we rub our eyes when we’re tired, your baby can’t yet do this and will rub their face on you out of fatigue,” shares Dr. Laura Sinai of Pediatrics At Home.

Rubbing their face onto a stuffed toy can also signal a need to slumber.

3. Trying To Satisfy an Itch

As young infants lack the coordination, motor skills, and muscle strength to bring their hands up to their face for a scratch, they need to relieve the itch somehow, and it usually involves using a surface (mom or dad’s chest) to do so!

While most itches are ordinary itches, sometimes a more serious irritation may be to blame, such as sensitivity to soap/detergent, food sensitivity, or skin conditions such as eczema.

One guilt-ridden mom shared her experience: 

“My baby did that A LOT when she had eczema. I always thought she was sleepy or hungry but now that she’s been treated and the eczema is gone she hasn’t done it once since. I feel so bad that she was itchy and I didn’t even realize.” 

4. Stuffy Nose

Extra mucus is produced in your baby’s nose when they’re sick or exposed to certain irritants in the home or general environment (allergies, pet dander, dust, cigarette smoke, etc.).

Often, they will try to relieve this stuffy nasal pressure by rubbing their nose against you.

5. Seeking Comfort

Sometimes your little one will move their head back and forth while in your hold as a self-soothing mechanism.

This could be because they still feel a strong sense of separation anxiety or they find something about their current environment uncomfortable (loud noises, cold temperatures, etc.).

6. Just Wants To Be Close to You

Mom’s natural pheromones are catnip to babies, so sometimes, snuggling into you is a sign they want to stay close to their safe place.

Pediatrician and neonatologist Dr. Jessica Madden reveals that:

“Babies begin to recognize their mom’s scent before they are even born — from the time they are exposed to their mother’s amniotic fluid.”

7. Trying To Nestle Into a Comfortable Position

In the same way that we might fidget and tussle into our pillow before we fall asleep, your baby will sometimes wriggle and press into your chest to get comfy.

This is a common mechanism babies use to find a comfortable position.

8. Frustration

Being unable to achieve a good latch, experiencing slow let-down or fast-flow nipples, and struggling to fit both his hands and a nipple into his mouth at the same time—issues like this can be incredibly frustrating for a little one.

Many babies will vent their frustration by crying, flailing their arms and legs, or rubbing their faces against you.

Forum user Rojoea shared her experience:

“LO does both these things. Puts his hands in his mouth and I can’t get the bottle in, then he gets mad, and he does the face rubbing. I try to hold his head to stop him from doing it, but changing positions is the only way to get him to stop.”

9. Teething Discomfort

It’s possible that your baby’s face rubbing is an attempt to relieve the discomfort and pain of teething.

If other signs of teething are evident, the mystery may be solved with this explanation. 

Signs to watch for include:

  • Drooling
  • Desire to chew on everything
  • General fussiness
  • Swollen gums
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Tugging on their ears

When To Worry

Face rubbing may only be a cause for concern when it is combined with other behaviors and symptoms such as a fever, vomiting, excessive crying, trembling, becoming jittery, etc.

Face rubbing in conjunction with other troubling symptoms could be linked to an infection or abdominal discomfort, so consult a pediatrician as soon as you can to identify possible causes.

A blonde mother snuggling with her newborn baby.

How To Stop Face Rubbing

Try to anticipate your baby’s needs and meet them before he or she feels the need to signal for them.

Make sure your child is fed on time, is getting enough quality sleep, is clean and moisturized, can breathe freely, is comfortable and not in pain, and is not experiencing frustration at feeding times.

A tried-and-true suggestion to prevent face rubbing is to leave a comfort blanket or teddy bear/soft toy in the crib if your baby is old enough.

Having something to actively rub her face on, snuggle up to, and sniff in the night can help her to self-soothe without rubbing or scratching her face.

How To Know When Your Baby Is Hungry

If your baby is crying, this is often a late sign of hunger, but before they resort to this obvious, cranky way of telling you, they’ll let you know with more subtle signs such as:

  • Appearing more alert and active (wide-eyed)
  • Turning their heads from side to side (looking for food)
  • Sticking their tongue out
  • Drooling (more than usual)
  • Furrowing their brow in a distressed way
  • Making sucking motions with their mouth (with or without a pacifier)
  • Smacking their lips
  • Locking eyes with mom (or primary feeder) and following them around the room with their eyes
  • Sucking on their fingers or clothes

Signs Baby Is Tired

Newborns to babies 3 months old will exhibit tiredness signs like crying, screaming, arching their back, grimacing (wearing a painful expression), clenching their fists, and pulling their knees up.

When babies are between 3 and 12 months old, they’ll begin showing more controlled, recognizable signs of tiredness such as yawning, fussing, whining, pulling on their hair or ears, and crying.

Babies over 12 months will become more active and independent and display tiredness by rubbing their eyes, yawning, losing coordination (spilling things, knocking things over more frequently, etc.), whining, and crying.

Baby Rubbing Her Face While Sleeping

Babies will often rub their faces during sleep due to things like:

  • Dry, itchy skin (a very common occurrence shortly after delivery)
  • If the room temperature is too warm
  • Allergies
  • Teething
  • General discomfort (face-rubbing can be a self-soothing mechanism to put them to sleep)

Baby Rubs Her Face on Your Chest

The most common reason behind face-rubbing into the chest is the natural rooting reflex all infants have to find their food source.

Otherwise, it could be any of the 9 reasons stated above.

Baby Rubs Her Face on You After Feeding

As confusing as it may seem to find your baby rubbing her face on you when they’ve already been fed, this behavior can often indicate tiredness.

This is a natural reaction once their tummy is full (we tend to feel sleepy after a big meal too!).

It could also be a sign of skin irritation and sensitivity, so if they continue this rubbing behavior after feeding without exhibiting sleepiness, be sure to share this with your pediatrician.