Newborn sleep is not always peaceful and sometimes comes with surprise noises. It turns out sleeping like a baby can mean anything from grunting to whistling during sleep. But should it be a cause for concern?
It’s natural for parents to worry when they hear their babies making unexpected sounds while they’re sleeping. Although occasionally certain noises may indicate an underlying medical issue, the wide range of sounds coming from your baby are typically normal. Grunting is particularly common in newborns, and understanding why it happens can help put your mind at ease.
Understanding Newborn Sleep
Grunting is only part of the package when it comes to newborn sleep. The truth is that your baby will probably make a plethora of funny noises while they sleep as their immature systems develop.
Your newborn’s nervous system has not yet matured, which leads to a lack of reflex control as well as grunting and other noises. What’s more, circadian rhythms do not develop until week six, which means the first few weeks of sleep may not be so peaceful. Until your baby develops a proper sleep pattern and can tell night apart from day, her sleep will seem restless.
At first, your baby’s sleep cycles may only be about 50 minutes long. As she grows older, the length of time your baby spends sleeping will increase. Several other transitions will take place, including nap time changes.
A change in sleep patterns during which babies have trouble sleeping can happen at any time. Typically, though, the most common sleep regressions in the first year occur at the following ages:
- 4 Months: As a newborn, your baby can’t see well due to an immature visual system. By four months, however, babies are suddenly able to see the world around them. This change results in a need for consistency in sleeping conditions. If a baby wakes up in a different room than the one she fell asleep in, for instance, she may feel scared.
- 8 Months: The second major sleep change occurs between the ages of 7 and 10 months. Babies are more mobile by this age and can also develop separation anxiety. To minimize sleep struggles, keep track of your baby’s naps and sleeping patterns and do your best to keep bedtime consistent.
REM sleep is a phase during which rapid eye movement occurs, but no visual information goes to the brain. Newborns spend approximately 50% of their sleep time in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage.
It’s normal for newborns to sleep up to 18 hours out of the day, which means they will spend about nine hours experiencing REM. As babies age, they will spend less time in the REM stage. By adulthood, only 20% of the time is spent in REM. Switching between sleep phases results in babies moving and making noises while they sleep.
Common Reasons for Grunting
Grunting doesn’t necessarily happen during the night or when your baby is asleep. It’s normal for babies to grunt even while awake and during different times of the day.
One of the most common reasons your baby may grunt is due to digestion. Newborns are still figuring out bodily functions and often grunt when they need to pass gas or a bowel movement. In most cases, grunting simply signals that your baby is making extra effort to digest.
If digestion is problematic and your baby is grunting due to constipation, there are a few signs to look out for:
- Bloated or hard belly
- Fussiness or crying
- Red face
- Hard or bloody stools
When none of the above signs are present and your baby is grunting without much discomfort, it’s perfectly okay. Simple actions like gently patting your baby on the back a few times with a cupped hand can do the trick. Burping your baby after meals and ensuring they’re well hydrated and fed on time will diminish their digestive issues.
Additionally, follow your baby’s hunger cues to learn their unique feeding pattern. Reaching for objects to suck, nibbling their hand, lip-smacking, and sticking out their tongue are all common hunger indicators. Observe your baby during and between feedings to understand when grunting is part of their digestion or feeding routine.
Sometimes your baby may grunt to release tension. Babies may grunt if they’re shifting positions - whether asleep or awake - due to a sudden change or slight discomfort. Grunting can also accompany snoring while they sleep, along with other noises such as gurgling.
For babies, grunting can be a little like yawning or sighing. It’s an acknowledgment of a change in sensation or emotion. As long as your baby’s grunting is not continuous or happening at every breath, it’s perfectly normal.
Babies cannot talk, and grunting provides a way for them to express themselves. If your baby is tired or bored, she may be letting you know by grunting. Occasionally, they may even be annoyed!
If your baby grunts as a response to something in particular, such as loud noise, it may be that they’re trying to communicate their disapproval. When an outside stimulus is not the cause, your baby may just be grunting to entertain herself. Making sounds is a common way for babies to explore their abilities and understand the world around them.
It may sound strange, but sometimes grunting is the body’s way of ensuring the lungs get their fair share of oxygen and remain open. When your baby grunts, you can hear an exhale typically followed by a few deep breaths. This is one of the top reasons your baby may grunt during sleep as she adapts and learns to breathe.
Grunting during sleep is fine as long as your baby doesn’t stop breathing for extended periods or skip breaths after a grunt.
Blocked Nasal Passages
Babies have tiny nasal passages that can easily become blocked. Because their lungs are still developing, mucus commonly gets trapped inside, even while sickness may be absent. That means grunting accompanied by sneezes and other noises.
You can easily treat blocked passages at home with a nasal aspirator if there are no signs of illness.
When Grunting Signals a Problem
Grunting is a common way for babies to explore their sound-making abilities, react to stimuli, and entertain themselves. It’s also common during digestion or sleep. Sometimes, however, grunting can signal something serious if accompanied by other symptoms.
If your baby is grunting because they’re in distress, one of the first things you may notice is an irregular breathing pattern. Grunting while breathing or with skipped breaths is a sign your baby has a respiratory ailment. You will likely also notice a fever when this happens.
If your baby has a fever and is grunting while breathing, she could have a viral infection such as from a cold virus. However, it could occasionally mean something more serious such as pneumonia or asthma. It’s difficult to determine on your own the severity of the symptoms, so you should call your physician immediately if your baby has trouble breathing.
Things you should report to the doctor include:
- Any family history or allergies
- How your baby is behaving
- When troubled breathing is occurring (for example, only at night)
- Possible allergens or food triggers
If a respiratory infection is suspected, your baby will likely receive testing for allergies as well as blood tests to determine the cause.
Aspiration means a foreign object enters the airways accidentally. It can happen with food, liquids, or something else your baby puts in her mouth. Babies constantly put things in their mouths and can face some form of aspiration as a result. However, occasionally aspiration can have serious consequences.
Symptoms of severe aspiration issues include:
- Weakly sucking when feeding
- Developing a fever after eating
- Wet breathing sounds after eating
- Repeated respiratory infections
- Wheezing, choking, or coughing while feeding
Digestive System Birth Defects
When there is a birth defect present in the digestive tract, grunting will happen more often and will be accompanied by recurring symptoms. Examples of defects that can interfere with normal digestion include a Cleft Palate or a malformation in the esophagus.
If your baby is grunting during bowel movements but is not passing hard stools, it may be a sign that they’re having trouble digesting food. Additionally, if acid reflux is a recurring problem, it may be time to call your doctor. Any constant inability to keep food down is cause for concern.
Things to look out for with potential digestive issues:
- Inability to gain weight
- Trouble breathing
- Being too tired to eat
- Lung congestion
Grunting accompanied by a high fever and other symptoms can be a sign of meningitis. Meningitis is a serious illness characterized by inflammation in the meninges, the membranes around the brain and spinal cord.
Severe types of meningitis are bacterial and include Group B Streptococcus. Other types include viral, fungal, and parasitic.
Early signs of meningitis include:
- Neck stiffness
- Light sensitivity
- Cold hands or feet
- Refusing feedings
- High-pitched crying
- Bulging fontanelle
When Do Babies Outgrow Grunting
The good news is that the symphony of noises coming from your baby will pass. Most babies will outgrow their grunting habits between six and twelve weeks.
The muscles your baby uses for digesting and breathing will strengthen in the first few months, eliminating the grunting habit. By twelve weeks, your baby will also likely have control over her reflexes and a better handle on bodily functions.
What Can You Do in the Meantime
Even if your baby’s grunting isn’t due to a medical problem, it can still be frustrating. Babies can be very loud sleepers, and this may lead to interruptions in your own sleep. Here are a few suggestions to help you cope.
Choose Where Your Baby Sleeps
If your noisy sleeper keeps you up at night or makes you get out of bed to check on things, consider a co-sleeper or bassinet. You will at least be spared having to get up multiple times a night to go see what’s wrong.
If you prefer, consider giving your little one her own room. Not everyone is comfortable with this option, but sleeping in the room next to your baby rather than sharing one can make a big difference. Keep a video baby monitor camera in your baby’s room so you can still hear if there is an issue, but adjust the volume to a comfortable setting.
Consider White Noise
If your baby is only a few feet away, you’re likely to wake up if they do more than grunt at night. To block out the funny noises but not any crying (which can indicate a serious issue), consider investing in a white noise machine. There are also several free phone apps you can download that offer various types of white noise.
Soothe Without Waking
If your newborn’s grunting results from hunger or passing a bowel movement, consider feeding or changing her diaper while she sleeps. Though many consider it taboo to feed newborns to sleep, it is a habit they can outgrow.
If you’re nursing, it should be easy to breastfeed your baby before they wake up fully. Even if you formula-feed, you can keep small 2-ounce bottles stashed nearby to use in an emergency.
Hearing your baby grunt while they sleep can be perplexing, but it’s perfectly normal in the first few months of life. By observing their grunting patterns, you can easily pinpoint the reason. Knowing that the grunting stage will end and understanding the reasons behind it should be comforting.
When grunting is the result of illness, you’re likely to observe several other symptoms. Fever, feeding issues, crying, and irritability are among the most common signs that something is wrong.
In the meantime, rest assured that your noisy sleeper is simply adapting and growing. Find a sleeping arrangement that works for your family and invest in some good white noise and monitors if necessary. Before you know it, the grunting phase will have passed.