It's just so ear-rational!
August 6, 2007 6:21 PM   Subscribe

Why do babies pull their ears when they are tired?

I mean, scientifically? What about it specifically is soothing to them? Or is it even soothing? And what makes them stop? Are there examples of people who still pull their ears when sleepy as adults?
posted by DenOfSizer to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Generally, babies pull their ears to help relieve pressure in the eustachian tube. The tubes in children's ears are shorter and narrower than the tube in adult ears, and kids tubes aren't as effective at releasing pressure. This is also why babies scream on airplanes - their ears can't respond to the pressure changes quickly enough to avoid pain.

A child doing it always when sleepy? Unless there's an ear issue, I'm not sure why.
posted by 26.2 at 6:58 PM on August 6, 2007

I know several babies who always play with their ears when they're tired -- nothing to do with ear pain. It's more often more like fidgeting with the ear than the type of pulling they do when it hurts.

It seems to me that it's pretty common for the hands to be drawn to the face/head when a kid is tired. I have one son who always sleeps with a hand against his cheek. Maybe it's just the easiest thing to fidget with while the hand is there.
posted by winston at 7:15 PM on August 6, 2007

do all babies do that? i've seen babies rub their eyes, but i've never noticed universal (in my admittedly limited experience) ear-tugging.

i suppose the tugging could give the same kind of ear-clearing as a good yawn.

if this is your kid, you might want to check with his or her doctor to make sure s/he doesn't have some gunk in there.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:15 PM on August 6, 2007

All babies do not do that. I'm not sure my 21 week old daughter is even aware of her ears. She definitely never pulls on them, tired or otherwise.

I would think that if the pressure release answers given above aren't the explanation, it might just be the case that some babies pull their ears when they are tired but for no good reason (that is, it's just a quirk of theirs).
posted by oddman at 8:09 PM on August 6, 2007

Obviously, it's to turn them off.
posted by fleacircus at 8:14 PM on August 6, 2007 [5 favorites]

Mine never messed with her ears unless there was a problem. She plays with her hair. I think kids just have things that comfort them, and they get used to playing with something that's easy to get to. I play with my beard all the time when I'm zoned out.
posted by monkeymadness at 8:26 PM on August 6, 2007

I pull on my ears. But it's because the eustachian tubes have been messed up since infancy, so the ears tends to congest too easily.

Is the baby's behavior linked to reclining? As he/she tires, the baby probably leans back more, or lets the head loll, if there's trapped fluid that's when it'd be likely to displaced and trigger discomfort, causing the baby to self-sooth. (Ear pulling relieves pressure, though usually only for the brief glorious moment it's tugged. Thus the repetition. On bad days I sometimes also rattle the lobe, a fruitless habit that must have started as childhood attempts to shake the fluid out.)

It'd be good to have baby checked out by an ENT (ear/nose/throat specialist, i.e. otolaryngologist).
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:32 AM on August 7, 2007

Oh jeez, look at all those typos. No more typing after bedtime.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:34 AM on August 7, 2007

Generally, babies pull their ears to help relieve pressure in the eustachian tube.

Were that true babies would push their ears. Tubes are opened by pulling back on adult ears, pushing towards the hole for infants.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:14 AM on August 7, 2007

My cousin's kid ignored her own ears but had a thing for pulling on the ears of whoever was holding her when she was sleepy.

That's probably completely irrelevant, but so what?
posted by knapah at 9:30 AM on August 7, 2007

I had always heard that there is a specific "calming" nerve in the ear that helps one to relax when stimulated. Lots of babies without ear problems pull on their ears. A quick googling pulls up this ear acupuncture gif. Point 13 says it is a "relaxing" point.
posted by frecklefaerie at 1:28 PM on August 7, 2007

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