This Is Why Babies Sleep With Their Arms Up (3 Explanations)

| Reviewed By Sarah Schulze, MSN, APRN, CPNP

As you start to watch your little one deep in slumber, you may notice that their arms are not always down by their sides.

Your baby may sleep with one or both arms up near their face, above their head, or completely splayed out like a sleepy starfish! As cute as this is, is it normal?

Why do babies sleep with their arms up? Infants commonly sleep with their arms in a raised position because they find this naturally comfortable, particularly following a coiled position in the womb. Sleeping with arms raised also helps them feel secure in preventing the Moro Reflex from startling them.

Babies eventually straighten their arms out into more of a soldier-like sleeping position, but in the early stages, they love to stretch out in this adorable, angelic way.

Let’s explore the main reasons behind this sweet sleeping style in addition to the safest sleeping positions for your newborn, swaddling info, and other sleeping concerns.

Why Babies Sleep With Their Arms Up

There are 3 main reasons behind your baby’s need to sleep with their arms above their head – partly for comfort and partly due to a natural biological response.

1. Naturally Comfortable Position

An arms-up sleeping position can simply be a more suitable, comfortable position for your little one.

They may raise their arms to help air circulate if they feel too warm, or they are simply experimenting with different sleeping positions, just as adults do.

Pediatrician Dr. Manasa Mantravardi explains that “many of us prefer to sleep on our side or our belly in adulthood.”

Babies sleeping on their backs are quite limited as to what they can do with their arms, so extending them above is one way of changing things up.

2. Feel Secure With Their Arms on Firm Surface

Babies often sleep with their arms above their heads to let them know they are resting on a firm surface. This is to help reduce the chances of the Moro Reflex startling them awake.

The Moro Reflex is an involuntary response in all infants that usually disappears after the first two months of life.

When your baby is sleeping in their crib instead of your protective arms, they can feel as if they are about to fall. This protective reflex startles babies into waking.

This is a common reason for your baby crying out in the night as this rude awakening can be quite alarming for them.

Fortunately, they gradually learn to soften the effects of this reflex by spreading their arms and fingers out on the surface to reassure them of their safety.

3. Enjoy Being Able To Stretch Out After Being in the Womb

When you’ve been curled up on the couch or sat at your desk for several hours, a stretch feels great, right? Well, your baby is making up for several months of being hunched up in their fetal position in the womb!

As a result, your newborn will often stretch out their limbs during sleep as they now have a chance to get things moving as they should (whether this is to enjoy a stretch itself or help pass gas and stimulate their bowels).

Infant Sleep Positions

It’s perfectly natural and safe for babies to exhibit different sleeping positions in terms of their arm placement (up like a starfish or by their sides soldier-like).

What’s important is ensuring their general sleeping position is following safe-sleep guidelines.

A newborn baby asleep on his back in a classic starfish position.

Best Sleeping Position for Newborn

Placing babies to sleep on their backs (not their bellies or sides) on a firm, flat surface is the recommended sleeping position.

This greatly reduces the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) caused by reduced airflow and inhaling exhaled air when placed on their front.

Starfish Position

This perfectly safe position is one of the most common infant sleeping poses and sees babies extend their arms out wide and spread their fingers out (which is said to indicate a more friendly, outgoing personality!)

On Back With Full Swaddle

Infants find it soothing to sleep in swaddling material as this mimics the cozy closeness of the womb.

As swaddling allows you to tuck their arms close to their body, this sleeping style also helps prevent jerky movements in your little one that may startle them awake.

It is vitally important that swaddling stops once they show signs of starting to roll onto their stomach (usually by around 3 months old).

On Back Swaddled With Arms Above Head

Some babies prefer to have their arms free from the swaddling blanket or sleep sack so they can rest their arms near their faces or above their heads.

Following the instructions of the swaddling product you use, the material would be tucked under their armpit instead of over their shoulders for arms-free sleeping.

Best Sleeping Position for Baby After Feeding

According to Mom News Daily, pediatricians advise that babies be placed on their backs to sleep after feeding as this “allows for better breathing and poses a minimal risk of suffocation, reducing the risk of SIDS.”

Some parents have voiced concerns that back-sleeping risks their infant choking on their own vomit after feeding, but thankfully, research shows that this isn’t very likely since babies naturally cough up or swallow fluid to clear their airways and back-sleeping actually helps with this reflex.

Best Sleeping Position for Babies With Gas

Burp your baby before placing him or her on their back. While on their back, encourage a more comfortable sleep by gently massaging their belly or by slowly cycling their legs toward their stomach like a bicycle.

Is It Safe for Babies To Sleep With Their Arms Up?

Absolutely! According to Dr. Mantravardi, this is a perfectly normal sleeping style in early infancy and is a safe position.

“As long as you are practicing safe sleep measures, there is no reason to worry about their arms being up during sleep.”

Is It Okay for Newborn To Sleep With Head to Side?

A flat spot can develop on one side or the back of a newborn’s head when they sleep with their head on the same side for the first few months.

This is often caused by torticollis, a condition causing tight neck muscles, which is commonly a result of womb positioning.

Limiting the amount of time baby spends on their back with tummy time and holding them during the day can help reduce side head sleeping and improve neck support.

Related Questions:

Why Do Babies Sleep With Their Legs Up?

It’s very common for newborn babies to sleep with their legs up in a frog-like position as this is similar to their close, tucked-up position in the womb and is how they feel most comfortable.

This is perfectly normal, and they will adopt a straighter leg position as their bodies develop.

What Age Does the Moro Reflex Disappear?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Moro Reflex in infants typically “peaks around the first month and starts to disappear after about two months.”

However, it is normal for this reflex to last up until 4 months post-natal and is later replaced by the adult “startle” reflex.

Closing Thoughts

It’s perfectly normal for infants to sleep with their arms up above their heads. Your baby does it to stretch and get more comfortable after being in a close, swaddling position in the mom’s womb.

Babies also learn to sleep this way to steady themselves to reduce the chances of the Moro Reflex (the falling sensation) startling them awake.

Whatever your baby’s sleep style, always stick to the recommended safe sleep guidelines by placing them on their back.