Published on May 5th, 2021
In the first year of her life, your baby will experience a world of new things—playing games like peekaboo, discovering she can grab toys (and probably your hair), and scooting herself across the floor as she learns to crawl. But not every new experience will be a joyful one. This is especially true when it comes to baby ear infections.
By twelve months, 23% of babies will develop at least one ear infection, with over 80% of children experiencing an ear infection by the time they’re three years old. In fact, ear infections are the most common reason parents take their children to the doctor.
Fortunately, you can learn how to prevent baby ear infections. That way, your curious little explorer can get back to normal and experience all the exciting new feelings, sights, and sounds her world has to offer.
What is an ear infection?
An ear infection also known as Otitis Media or “swimmer’s ear”,occurs when inflammation causes fluid to collect in the middle ear and harbor unwanted bacteria.
It’s not covered during your standard session of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, but it does exist. Aptly named, the middle ear refers to the area between the outer ear and the inner ear.
The outer ear is essentially what you think of when you hear the word “ear.” It encompasses the parts of the ear you can see, as well as the ear canal. The outer ear stops at the tympanic membrane. You know this as the eardrum—a membrane composed of connective tissues covered in skin. The eardrum also acts as a barrier between the outer ear and the middle ear.
The middle ear’s job is to transmit sound vibrations from the outer ear to the inner ear. Once vibrations are passed along to the inner ear, they’re converted into electrical signals our brains can understand. But let’s get back to the middle ear.
To keep unwelcome bacteria out, the lining of the middle ear regularly secretes a mucus-like fluid (as if you don’t deal with enough fluids keeping track of your little one!). This fluid then drains through the eustachian tubes—tiny tunnels that connect the middle ear to the upper throat. Through this process, bacteria is flushed from the middle ear, leaving you with healthy, clean ears.
But if an eustachian tube becomes inflamed (due to germs in the ear or a cold), they swell shut. This traps the fluid within the middle ear alongside all that bacteria.
Ear, meet infection.
Not so pleased to meet you!
How can you prevent baby ear infections?
While your baby’s eustachian tubes and immune system are still developing, the potential for ear infections remains high. If you want to learn more about what causes ear infections in babies, and why they’re more common than ear infections in adults, take a look at our in-depth article about the causes of ear infections in babies right here.
In the meantime, check out the following steps you can take to reduce the chance of baby ear infections:
- Consider an annual flu shot – Receiving an annual flu shot, starting at six months, significantly reduces your baby’s risk of developing the flu. Since a viral infection like the flu can lead to swollen eustachian tubes, reducing the risk of the flu means reducing the risk of ear infections.
- Look into appropriate vaccines – The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (more easily referred to as PCV13) protects your child from any illness caused by pneumococcal bacteria. This includes meningitis, sinus infections, and (yep, you guessed it!) ear infections. Your little one can receive this vaccine as soon as he’s two months old.
- Reduce the spread of germs with frequent hand washing – It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Washing your hands (and your baby’s hands!) for at least 20 seconds with soap and water significantly reduces the spread of germs that can cause ear infections.
Plus, twenty seconds is the perfect amount of time to hold a mini concert at your sink. Keep it classic with a few verses of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” or try a more current nautical track with everyone’s favorite “Baby Shark” (dooo-doo-doo-dooo-doo!).
- Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke – Studies have shown that children who are exposed to second-hand smoke are two to three times more likely to develop ear infections. The second-hand smoke irritates the delicate eustachian tubes of a baby’s ear and can cause inflammation and swelling, leading to ear infections. If someone in your household chooses to have a cigarette, ask them to do so outside.
- Skip the crib bottle – If your baby drinks from a lying down position, like when he’s in his crib, milk can flow back into his eustachian tubes. This can increase the risk of infection because sugars in the milk create the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. For bottles, it’s best to feed your hungry little guy from a semi-upright position. Interestingly, you don’t have to worry about positioning when breastfeeding, as the sucking motion your baby makes prevents this flowback effect.
- Try breastfeeding – Breastfeeding is also believed to provide your baby with antibodies that can reduce his risk of ear infections. If you’re able to, doctors recommend breastfeeding your baby for the first six months to a year.
- Limit exposure to other sick children – Along with toys, hugs, and kisses, children also love to share germs. If you know a friend or playmate recently got over a cold, consider waiting a few extra days before scheduling your baby’s next playdate.
If another member of your household is sick, try to keep your baby at a safe distance, and don’t forget to implement those regular hand-washing concerts.
- Steer clear of sneeze-inducers – Allergens such as pet dander, dust, and pollen can irritate and inflame the eustachian tubes. If your baby is frequently sneezing, coughing, or needing you to catch a runny nose, it may be due to environmental or seasonal allergies.
Consider reaching out to your pediatrician or contacting an allergist to learn more about allergy testing and diagnosis.
How To Handle a Baby Ear Infection
Taking preventative measures can help reduce any baby’s risk of developing an ear infection. However, as you may have learned in your parenting adventures, you can’t control everything. That means, despite your best efforts, your baby may still develop an ear infection.
It’s okay! In fact, it’s normal. And the good news is, you can treat ear infections easily. Simply follow this three-step guide:
#1 Recognize the Signs of a Baby Ear Infection
Although your baby can’t tell you with words if he’s experiencing ear pain, there are a number of physical signs that can alert you to potential or repeated ear infections.
These can include:
- Tugging or pulling at the ears – To alleviate the pain and pressure of an ear infection, your baby may tug or pull at his ears.
- Crying or fussiness – If your little bundle of joy seems a bit more like a little bundle of fuss, it may be due to ear pain.
- Trouble sleeping – When your baby has an ear infection, lying on his back can shift the fluid in his ears, causing increased pressure that make it difficult to sleep.
- Fever – A fever may indicate your baby’s immune system is trying to fight off an infection.
- Fluid draining from the ear – Thick, yellow fluid or pus draining from the ear can mean a buildup of fluid has ruptured your child’s eardrum. Fortunately, the eardrum will heal itself within one to two weeks, but the underlying ear infection will still need treatment.
- Unsteadiness – Although babies are naturally wobbly, an ear infection can affect their balance, creating greater unsteadiness and even dizziness.
- Reduced hearing – If you notice your baby isn’t responding to sounds, it may be due to a buildup of fluid behind his eardrum making it difficult to hear.
- Lack of appetite – Changes in pressure around your baby’s ear can also make swallowing uncomfortable, resulting in a decreased appetite.
#2 Reach Out to Your Pediatrician
If you notice any signs of an ear infection, it’s best to call your pediatrician so they can make an accurate diagnosis.
For about 80% of children, ear infections resolve on their own within roughly three days. In fact, many pediatricians will even wait 48 to 72 hours before prescribing an antibiotic to treat an ear infection.
However, if your baby is younger than six months or experiencing severe ear infection symptoms, your pediatrician will likely prescribe a ten day course of antibiotics to help your baby’s immune system fight off the infection.
Since baby immune systems take time to develop, it’s not unusual for children to experience one to two ear infections a year. But if your child suffers from recurring ear infections—meaning ear infections that arise five to six times a year—it might be a sign of a genetic predisposition. In this case, your child’s doctor may recommend surgical intervention.
In a simple and painless procedure, a doctor will place small ventilation tubes into the eardrum while your child is under general anesthesia. These tubes act as replacement eustachian tubes, improving air flow to the middle ear space and preventing the fluid buildup causing your baby’s infections. The tubes typically stay in place for six to nine months, before eventually falling out on their own.
#3 Soothe Your Baby With At-Home Remedies
If your baby suffers from chronic or recurrent ear infections and you want to help ease your little fighter’s discomfort as he recovers, try some of these simple and effective at-home remedies:
- Place a warm compress over the infected ear for about ten to fifteen minutes at a time. The warmth can help loosen the buildup of fluid and make things a bit more comfortable for your little one.
- Keep your baby hydrated by offering plenty of fluids. Not only will this help his immune system fight the infection, but the action of swallowing can also help open the eustachian tubes, potentially relieving some pressure.
- Elevate your baby’s head during sleep by placing a pillow beneath his crib mattress. Just like putting a pillow under your head when you have a stuffy nose, the upright angle makes it easier for ear fluid to clear and for more air to move through the eustachian tubes.
Use acetaminophen to relieve pain and fever if your baby is over six months old.
Caring For Your Baby’s Ears (And The Rest of Her!) with SneakPeek Traits—That’s Music to Everyone’s Ears
With the SneakPeek At-Home Early DNA Traits Test, you can learn the likelihood of your baby’s predisposition for developing ear infections well before ear tugging and increased fussiness can make an appearance. This means you can take extra precautions to reduce her exposure to common causes of ear infections, such as cold and flu germs and cigarette smoke.
And if you like the sound of knowing your baby’s likelihood of ear infections, you’ll love the other physical insights SneakPeek Traits has to offer. Discover how tall your little one may grow, the lifelong color of her twinkling eyes, and whether she’ll have your same hair shape.
You can also learn about your baby’s specific food preferences and inherent sleep behavior. That means you can create a personalized nutrition plan and figure out what sleep schedule will provide you and your baby with those hard to come by Zs.
Customized nutrition, restful nights, and a reduced risk of baby ear infections? It’s all possible for as little as $79 with SneakPeek Traits. Get your easy-to-use kit today.
Medical News Today. Can you treat baby ear infection without antibiotics? https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322219#home-and-natural-remedies
National Institute of Health. Ear Infections in Children. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/ear-infections-children
Verywell Health. What Mucous Membranes Do in Your Body. https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-are-mucous-membranes-1191862
Healthline. Home Remedies for Your Baby’s Ear Infection. https://www.healthline.com/health/childrens-health/remedies-for-baby-ear-infection#_noHeaderPrefixedContent
WebMD. Could Your Child Have an Ear Infection? https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/ear-infection/features/child-ear-infection
Healthline Parenthood. What to Expect When Your Baby Has Allergies. https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/baby-allergies#diagnosis
What To Expect. Easing Ear Infections in Babies and Toddlers. https://www.whattoexpect.com/childrens-health-and-safety/childhood-ear-infections.aspx
CDC. Pneumococcal Conjugate (PCV13) VIS. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/pcv13.html