When your baby holds out her arms to be picked up, you might playfully grab her arms and pull her up to you. But pulling on a baby's arms can cause injury not only to her arms but also to her neck, if she doesn't have good muscle control yet. The best way to pick your baby up when she's old enough to have good head control is to hold her under her arms rather than pulling on her hands or arms. If she doesn't have good head control yet, her head should be supported as well.
Your baby's bones, ligaments and joints are still a little loose and not completely formed. When you pull on a little hand or arm, even if you don't pull very hard, you can dislocate the elbow joint. While this sounds terrible -- and you'll feel terrible -- it's a common injury in children ages 1 to 4, although it can also occur in infants, according to Kids Health. Commonly called nursemaid's elbow, pulled elbow or radial head subluxation, this injury occurs when the ligament that holds the two lower bones of the arm, the radius and ulna, in place is looser then normal. Even a small amount of force lets the ligament move up over the head of the radius, allowing the radial bone to shift out of place.
Diagnosing Nursemaid's Elbow
Nursemaid's elbow hurts briefly, but not nearly as much as a fracture. Your baby might cry out and refuse to move the arm, letting it hang straight or slightly bent at the elbow. You won't notice any swelling or discoloration. As long as he keeps his arm still, he probably won't complain of pain, but it will hurt if he tries to move it. He may be able to move at the shoulder without pain, but any movement at the elbow will continue to hurt.
What to Do
You might have heard that you can just pop a nursemaid's elbow back into place, but this isn't something you should try on your own. See your pediatrician so he can check the arm for other possible injuries and put the bone back into place. Your baby should be able to use the arm without pain within 30 minutes, Web MD explains. Some children with looser ligaments are prone to this injury, which is more likely to recur within three to four weeks after the initial dislocation, according to MedlinePlus. Nursemaid's elbow doesn't cause permanent disability, as long as it is treated, so don't beat yourself up if this happens to your child and just adjust your style of picking her up in the future.
While nursemaid's elbow is the injury most commonly associated with picking a baby up by his arms, you can also cause neck injuries this way. Babies have weak necks and big, heavy heads disproportionate to their size. When you pull him by his arms, his head might fall back, injuring the muscles. Support your baby's head and neck with one hand while placing the other under his buttocks when you pick him up until he's old enough to hold his head steady when you pick him up, around 4 months.