But why do babies rub their eyes when they are sleepy?

But why do babies rub their eyes when they are sleepy?

A baby rubbing his eyes often gives the signal that a nap is needed. Yes, but what is the link between the two: his gesture and his need to sleep? Science is trying to decipher this universal habit.

“Ah, baby is rubbing his eyes, it’s time to put him to bed”. Here is a universal (and very practical) code known to all parents. But what triggers this behavior, and what purpose does it serve? Scientists investigated.

The mark of a feeling of discomfort linked to fatigue

“Unfortunately, we can’t ask a baby exactly why they rub their eyes,” Dr. Rebecca Dudovitz, associate professor of general pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told Live Science. “But we know from human experience that people tend to rub their eyes when they’re tired, and we think this may be due to a simple feeling of discomfort you get when your eye muscles have been working hard and it’s time for a break.”

Thus, a baby who spends his time observing his surroundings and his environment sees his eyes get tired very quickly, even before he wants to sleep. In the same way that your shoulders may need a massage after sitting at a desk all day, the muscles that help your eyes need to be rubbed, says the scientist. But that’s not all.

A more sensitive eye balance in babies

Another part of the answer lies in the baby’s own physical characteristics. So, as we have seen, babies spend a large part of their time observing their environment. A habit that tires them all the more as a baby only knows how to blink a few times per minute (compared to 15 to 20 times for an adult). However, staring also dries the eyes, and babies do not have the same tears as we do.

“A baby’s tears are not just salt water, but mucus near the surface, salt water in the middle, and a layer of oil from the meibomian glands of the eyelids to prevent evaporation “ says Dr. Robert W. Arnold, ophthalmologist at Alaska Children’s Eye & Strabismus. “This triple layer must be renewed and spread gently over the surface while blinking.

Consequences ? When baby looks too intensely, he lacks “lubricant”, but when he blinks enough, this triple layer can break and leave dry areas on the surface of the cornea. Two good reasons to rub your eyes when you’ve been standing for a long time!

Other reasons for friction

Fatigue is therefore the most likely reason for this little rubbing of the eyes. However, babies may also rub their eyes for other reasons. If this occurs frequently during the day, it is useful to ask the question of other causes:

  • Allergies. Allergies can affect infants just as they can affect older people. Allergens such as dust, pollen, pet dander or certain foods can trigger immune reactions;
  • Foreign body sensation. Sometimes babies can have a foreign object, such as an eyelash or dust particle, stuck in their eyes. This sensation can cause intense rubbing of the eyes as the baby tries to relieve the discomfort. Gently rinsing the eyes with lukewarm water can remove the foreign body;
  • Too much light. Although less common in babies, continued exposure to screens, bright lights, or visual stimulation can lead to eye strain. Reducing/eliminating screen time and setting appropriate lighting relieves eye strain.
  • An eye infection. Eye infections in infants can appear as red, itchy, and dischargey eyes. Babies may rub their eyes in response to discomfort. The most common conditions in babies are conjunctivitis or viral eye infections. Seeking prompt medical attention is necessary.
  • A vision problem. In rare cases, if your baby rubs their eyes a lot, it may indicate underlying conditions or vision problems. Conditions such as blocked tear ducts, strabismus (crossed eyes), or refractive errors can lead to eye discomfort. Early examination by a pediatric ophthalmologist is essential to resolve these issues.