Baby Symptoms & Conditions

Stiff Neck In Babies

Could baby’s stiff neck be a sign of something serious? Here’s the deal on this scary symptom.

What is a stiff neck in babies?

It’s very unusual for a baby to develop a stiff neck, unless he’s either born with a specific condition or has developed one owing to nerve or muscle problems.

What could be causing my baby to have a stiff neck?

Many parents automatically think of meningitis — a potentially life-threatening infection — when they think “stiff neck,” but babies with meningitis are actually unlikely to have that symptom, even though it’s a hallmark of the virus in kids and adults. But older toddlers can develop neck stiffness caused by meningitis — other red-flag symptoms include fever, headache and sensitivity to light.

A baby with a stiff neck may have something called torticollis, a muscular/nerve disorder that causes her head to tip to one side.

When should I take my baby to the doctor with a stiff neck?

If your baby has a fever or any other warning signs of meningitis, call your doctor right away. Ditto if you notice any other sudden or unusual symptoms.

What should I do to treat my baby’s stiff neck?

If your baby is diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, he’ll likely need to spend some time in the hospital getting antibiotics. If a virus, rather than bacteria, is to blame, he’ll likely just get better on his own (but ask your doctor, just to be sure). For torticollis, he’ll likely need therapy to help passively stretch the shortened neck muscle and straighten his head, so he can be shaking his head “no” to you in no time.

By Jennifer Shu, MD, pediatrician with Children’s Medical Group P.C. in Atlanta and author of <em>Heading Home With Your Newborn</em> (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010)