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Ear Tugging & Your Child

I see a lot of parents who bring their baby/toddler/child in to the pediatrician with concerns that their child might have an ear infection. One of the reasons for their...

I see a lot of parents who bring their baby/toddler/child in to the pediatrician with concerns that their child might have an ear infection. One of the reasons for their concern is often that their baby is tugging on their ears.  

Babies find their ears, just like their hands and feet, around 4 -6 months of age.  I guess a baby must think “this ear tugging is fun and feels good” as maybe babies have “itchy” ears just like adults. It also seems to be a self soothing habit for other children who seem to pull on their ears when they get tired and cranky.  Maybe it is related to new molars coming in at the back of the jaw line?   

Whatever the cause, it often concerns parents who are told by their friends or relatives, “I am worried, this ear pulling probably means the child has an ear infection”.  So, being a good parent off you go to your pediatrician only to find out that the ears a beautiful and clear! 

Most babies and children do not get an ear infection without ANY other symptoms besides ear pulling.  In most cases infants and toddlers will get a secondary ear infection during cold and flu season. The multitudes of viral respiratory infections that children get in the first 3 years of life, often cause continuous runny noses and congestion. This congestion causes fluid to build up in the middle ear space which connects to the nasal passages via a small canal called the eustachian tube.   

Infants and children have so called “immature” eustachian tubes that are soft, and don’t drain well and the tube gets inflamed and swollen from the viral infection as well.  At times this fluid gets secondarily infected from bacteria that find their way to the middle ear.  Voila....an ear infection ensues. 

So, if a parent brings their child in for “pulling on their ears” and they are otherwise well (no cough, congestion, runny nose and sleeping well) I usually ask if they want to “wager” if their child has an ear infection.  That is really not fair, as this sweet parent is only concerned because typically someone else told them they should be.  But, in this case a quarter bet is usually made and I end up with a lot of quarters.  (they are good for all of the other bets I do lose with parents and kids about all sorts of things). Friendly betting at the pediatrician’s office, wonder if I am going to be investigated! 

Don’t worry about simple ear pulling especially when you see it happening all of the time.   

Lastly, with the new guidelines for prescribing antibiotics for an ear infection parent’s don’t need to worry as much about a prescription for antibiotics and a few days of waiting will not hurt.  

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About Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award winning pediatrician and medical editor for www.kidsdr.com.  She is a native of Washington, D.C. who travelled south to attend the University of Texas at Austin and never left.Read More

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