If your infant seems to be itching or pulling on her ears, it's likely that she's just discovering them; however, in some cases, it can indicate that she's experiencing pain in the area. Babies less than a year old do not have the capacity to locate their ear pain or to know whether it's coming from the external structures of the ear, near the ear or inside the ear, according to AskDrSears. Watching for other signs can help you determine whether your infant has an infection or is just playing with her ears.
Pulling, tugging, poking or itching the outer ear can be a sign of swimmer's ear, also known as otitis externa. Swimmer's ear is an infection of the lining of the outer ear canal that results when water gets trapped in the ear canal during showers or baths, or due to ear canal irritation from cotton-tipped swabs. The protective skin lining is eroded away, making a suitable environment for bacterial growth. Other signs of swimmers ear include yellow, watery or smelly discharge, swelling, redness and scaling.
Ear infection, or otitis media, can also make your infant scratch and pull her ear. Ear infections are most common in children from 6 months to 3 years of age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and usually cause cold-like symptoms such as runny nose, fussiness, ear pain, fever, yellow ear drainage, sleeping problems and hearing loss. In addition, your baby may cry more during feeding because the sucking and swallowing cause painful pressure changes in the ear.
Babies can bat, scratch or pull their ears as a response to teething. This is because your infant mistakes the pain from the swelling gums as ear pain. Other signs of teething include drooling, chewing on objects and fussiness. Sometimes, a teething baby can also have a mild fever, but fevers due to teething never exceed 101 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Call your doctor immediately if your baby looks sick and has a fever over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, or if your infant is less than 12 weeks old and has a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher. Always consult your doctor if you are unsure about the seriousness of the ear symptoms. You can ease ear pain with acetaminophen or ibuprofen medication; read package directions for dosage and age appropriateness. Applying a warm compress to the affected ear or administering warm garlic, vegetable or olive oil drops, or anesthetic ear drops into the ear can also relieve ear pain, notes AskDrSears. Keep your baby's ears dry to avoid swimmer's ear.
- "Your Baby's First Year"; The American Academy of Pediatrics; 2nd edition; 2005
- AskDrSears.com: Ear Infections
- Seattle Children's Hospital; Ear - Pulling at or Itchy; Barton D. Schmitt, M.D.; June 2008
- BabyCenter:Swimmer's Ears (Otitis Externa)