Hypertonic Infants: Is A Stiff Baby Cause For Concern?

Have you ever seen a baby pull her feet up close to her face? Most adults wouldn’t even think of attempting a stunt like that. But babies do it all the time. They’re very flexible! However, hypertonic infants, or a baby with stiff baby syndrome, can’t do this adorable trick. And their parents find themselves typing things like “my baby stiffens body when picked up” into Google, hoping dearly for the best.

When is a stiff baby a cause for concern? A little stiffness may be no big deal. But sometimes, the underlying cause of stiffness is a birth injury. In that case, the situation may be serious. Read on for more about hypertonic infants and how medical malpractice can lead to stiff baby syndrome.  

A mother and father hold baby's feet in their hands.

What Is Stiff Baby Syndrome?

If you pick up a healthy baby, he might stiffen his legs and arms out of excitement. This isn’t anything to worry about. It’s also normal for babies to tighten up their bodies when they get frustrated. They might do this when they don’t want you to put them in a car seat or highchair. 

But there’s another type of stiffening that is cause for concern. When a baby’s muscles are always stiff, it can be a sign of an underlying illness. This condition is called hypertonia, or stiff baby syndrome. Hypertonic infants can appear almost statue-like. They might not be able to raise their arms over their heads or rotate their torsos with ease. Babies with this condition are treated with physical therapy.

There are two types of hypertonia:

  • Dystonic hypertonia: The baby is stiff all the time, with and without movement. Marked by muscles never, or very rarely relaxing.
  • Spastic hypertonia: The baby’s muscles tighten often; whenever you pick the baby up, for example. Marked by muscle spasms and exaggerated reflexes in response to movement.

The muscle stiffness in hypertonic infants can range from mild to severe. Sometimes, it goes away on its own and isn’t a cause for concern. Other times, hypertonia has a specific cause. It can stem from birth trauma, or be a sign of a hidden condition. 

What Are The Symptoms Of Hypertonia In A Baby?

As we mentioned before, hypertonic babies are stiff. And that’s because they have too much muscle tone. Now the symptoms vary a good bit, both in type and severity.

Here are a number of those symptoms:

  • Troubles moving neck, legs, or arms
  • Limited range of motion
  • Limited flexibility
  • Limited joint movement
  • Soreness and/or throbbing muscle pain
  • Excessive muscle tone
  • Falling frequently, lack of balance
  • Joints freezing in place
  • Frozen joints and muscles, skin, tendons, etc tightening permanently (contracture)
  • Twitching or jerking muscles (myoclonus)

Now that we’ve covered the symptoms, let’s cover what causes hypertonia to begin with.

What Causes A Stiff Baby? What Causes Hypertonia?

Most of the time, hypertonia is a brain and nerve issue. When you want to move, your brain sends a signal to your muscles. The muscles contract or relax. In hypertonic infants, something interferes with this signal. Usually, it’s an injury to the brain or spinal cord. The injury may occur while the baby is in the womb, during the birth, or after. Here are some examples of conditions that can cause hypertonia. We’ve included a brief explanation of how they can lead to hypertonia and a stiff baby. 

  • Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral palsy is a medical condition that develops when blood flow to a baby’s brain is reduced or cut off during birth. This causes an oxygen shortage. The lack of oxygen damages the part of the brain that controls muscle movement. 
  • StrokesNeonatal strokes can occur when a baby doesn’t get enough oxygen while traveling through the birth canal. 
  • Head trauma. A head injury, such as one inflicted by forceps during delivery, can damage the brain and cause hypertonia. 
  • Brain tumors. Tumors are abnormal cell growths. They may affect the part of the brain that controls movement, causing a stiff baby. 
  • Exposure to a harmful chemical. If a baby comes into contact with a chemical that damages the brain or spinal cord, she may develop hypertonia. 
  • Kernicterus. Some babies get jaundice after birth. Bilirubin, a waste product from the liver, builds up and turns the skin yellow. If jaundice goes untreated, it can become kernicterus. Kernicterus is a serious condition that often leads to brain injury. 
  • Erb’s Palsy and shoulder dystocia. A baby can get stuck while coming down the birth canal. Doctors may pull too hard on the baby’s neck or shoulder to speed the process along or use a vacuum or forceps. Shoulder dystocia is the name for the damage to a baby’s neck or shoulder nerves. This damage can lead to Erb’s palsy. Muscle stiffness is a symptom of Erb’s Palsy.

Hypertonic Infants & Birth Injuries

You might have noticed that many of the possible causes for a stiff baby stem from birth injuries. For example, if a doctor pulls too hard on a baby’s shoulder while delivering her, she can develop shoulder dystocia and become hypertonic. The same goes for exposure to chemicals, or leaving jaundice untreated. 

Another example is when a mother struggles to give birth. The baby is in danger of oxygen deprivation. The situation requires a cesarean section. But the doctor in charge doesn’t order one in time, or at all. The baby develops Cerebral Palsy and subsequent hypertonia. 

This would be an example of medical malpractice. Why? Because the physician didn’t follow the standard of care for that situation. The parents of the hypertonic infant may be able to sue the doctor for negligence. In fact, Cerebral Palsy is one of the most common conditions involved in birth injury lawsuits. 

Are you a parent of a hypertonic infant? Has a doctor’s mistake led to a stiff baby or another devastating birth injury? Speak with our caring, compassionate birth injury lawyers today. We’re on your side! Contact us here. 

Hypertonic Infants & Stiff Baby Syndrome FAQs

What is a hypertonic infant?

Hypertonia is a condition where a newborn baby has an excessive amount of muscle tone and stiffness. So hypertonic infants have too much muscle tone, and that causes stiffness.

What if my baby stiffens their legs and arms when excited?

Abnormal stiffness in a baby is a symptom associated with hypertonia. Hypertonia is a condition characterized by abnormally stiff muscles in a baby, and it’s a symptom of cerebral palsy, kernicterus (jaundice), and Erb’s palsy.

Is a stiff baby cause for concern?

A stiff baby can be a cause for concern, because it may indicate a health issue that requires medical attention. Stiffness in your baby can indicate medical conditions. It’s critically important to seek medical attention if necessary.

What causes hypertonia in an infant?

Hypertonia can be caused by various factors such as brain injury, metabolic disorders, and genetic conditions. Sometimes, the cause is medical malpractice. Example: The doctor negligently fails to order a c-section in a timely manner, and the baby’s brain is injured, causing hypertonia.

If you had heavy bleeding after your C-section, and/or your baby ends up with hypertonia, please schedule a free medical malpractice consultation immediately. You could have a case.

What are the symptoms of hypertonia?

The symptoms a hypertonic infant may display include:

  • Excessive muscle tone
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Myoclonus (jerking or twitching muscles)
  • Difficulty moving
  • Decreased flexibility
  • Exaggerated reflexes and muscle spasms
  • Postural abnormalities
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Persistent clenched fists
  • Involuntary muscle contractions
  • Crossed legs
  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Joints freezing in place
  • Body deformity

How are hypertonic infants diagnosed?

They’re typically diagnosed through physical examination first. After that, possibly tests like blood tests, CT scans, electromyograms, MRIs, or other imaging studies.

Will a hypertonic infant have long-term health issues?

Hypertonia can lead to long-term health issues if not treated properly. Issues like delays in motor development and other developmental and mental disabilities.

Which conditions cause hypertonia?

Cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Dystonia, neurodegenerative disorders, brain tumors, severe head injuries, birth asphyxia, and spinal cord injuries are all conditions that can cause hypertonia.

Is hypertonia common?

Hypertonia is fairly rare. Hypotonia (abnormally low muscle tone or weakness), on the other hand, is much more frequent in newborns.