Babies have many forms of communication and expression, and a common early one is rubbing their faces on a caregiver.
If you’re unaccustomed to this little quirk, you might be initially alarmed and wonder whether this is normal behavior. Fortunately, this is perfectly natural, but what does it mean?
Why does my baby rub her face on me? Face rubbing is commonly due to an involuntary motor reflex in young infants known as the rooting reflex. Rubbing the head from side to side enables babies to locate the nipple for feeding. Face rubbing can also indicate tiredness, irritability, or a desire to stay close to you.
Face rubbing begins as an involuntary, primitive behavior and becomes voluntary as babies gain coordination and motor skills.
Let’s explore the possible reasons why your little one does this. We’ll also look into why babies rub their faces in their sleep, how to spot when they’re hungry, and more.
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. Reason – Rooting Reflex
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, M.D., 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!
4. Stuffy Nose
Extra mucus is produced in your baby’s nose when they’re 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 temps, 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, M.D., 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.
According to the Parenting Stack Exchange, this appears to be a common mechanism babies use to find a comfortable position.
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.
This could be linked to an infection or abdominal discomfort, so consult a pediatrician as soon as you can to identify possible causes.
Why Does My Baby Rub 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
- General discomfort (face-rubbing can be a self-soothing mechanism to put them to sleep)
How Can I Stop Face Rubbing?
A tried-and-true suggestion to prevent face rubbing can be leaving 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.
Why Does My Baby Rub Her Face on My Chest?
The most common reason behind face-rubbing into the chest is the natural rooting reflex all infants have in a desire to find their food source. Otherwise, it could be any of the 7 reasons stated above.
Why Does My Baby Rub Her Face on Me 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.
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.
Why Does My Baby Grunt When Breastfeeding?
Grunting in newborns is mostly related to digestion.
A baby will commonly grunt during breastfeeding as they acclimatize to formula or their mother’s milk, and since a newborn’s stomach muscles are not strong at this stage, exercising their diaphragm puts pressure on the voice box, creating a grunting noise.
Why Do Babies Cry Before Sleeping?
Crying right before sleep is often attributed to separation anxiety, which is a perfectly normal and healthy phase in your baby’s development.
Babies love the reassurance of your touch and comfort, so trying to settle in their crib alone can initially be a difficult adjustment for them.
To sum up, a common reason babies rub their faces into you or your chest is due to the ingrained rooting reflex — a side-to-side movement they do in search of their food source.
It can also be a way of communicating tiredness to you or be a sign that they are itchy and need to get comfortable.
On its own, face rubbing can usually be chalked up to the above-mentioned 7 reasons, but if other behaviors accompany this, such as vomiting, a high temperature, and excessive crying, it’s important to speak with a pediatrician right away to determine the underlying causes.
Mom of three (including identical twin boys), wife, and owner of Parents Wonder. This is my place to share my journey as a mother and the helpful insights I learn along the way.