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Hair Tourniquet: The Reason For Your Extremely Fussy Baby

A hair tourniquet happens when a piece of hair (usually from mom’s long hair) or a thread from fabric wraps around part of the baby (like a finger) and cuts off the blood supply. Hair tourniquets are a relatively common causes of extreme fussiness in babies.

The most common scenario is one where a baby becomes suddenly and inconsolably fussy for no apparent reason. The parent will try feeding the baby, rocking the baby, and simply can’t get the baby to settle down. After a time, the parent discovers the problem: a hair tourniquet.

How do I know if my baby has a hair tourniquet?

The involved area will get very red and swollen. Usually, you can see a perfect line all the way around the appendage with swelling on either side. The picture above is a classic example of a hair tourniquet on an infant’s finger–special thanks to my friend for letting me use this picture of her son.

Sometimes, especially if the tourniquet has been there a while or is really tight, there will be so much swelling that you can’t even see the piece of hair or thread.

If your baby is unexplainably fussy, try stripping him/her down naked and examining his/her whole body. The involved area is often covered by diapers, gloves, and footed jammies.

Where can a hair tourniquet happen?

Most commonly, hair tourniquets happens on small extremities/appendages like fingers, toes, and penises. However, theoretically, it could happen essentially anywhere you could wrap a strand of hair around (e.g., ear lobe, tongue, wrist, ankle, umbilical stump, etc.)

How do I treat a hair tourniquet?

If you can clearly see the hair/thread and can safely unwrap the appendage, do so. If the tourniquet isn’t severe, the appendage will revert to its normal appearance within a few minutes. If you can’t see the hair, you can’t remove it, or the involved area appears injured (even after removal), seek immediate medical attention (go to urgent care or the emergency room if your doctor can’t see your child right away). Treatment may be as simple as cutting the hair/thread and removing it or may involve suturing or surgery if a lot of damage has been done.

(I recently saw a hair tourniquet on an infant’s penis. It had been there for hours before the parents discovered the problem. The swelling was so severe that you couldn’t see the hair, but there was a distinct line of involvement. I had to completely numb the area and use a scalpel to get to the hair that was so embedded in the swollen tissue.)

How serious is a hair tourniquet?

This varies. The tighter the wrap and the longer it goes unnoticed, the worse the prognosis. In extreme circumstances, one could lose the appendage it is wrapped around. Usually, there is just pain and swelling. Most cases resolve relatively quickly once the problem is discovered.

How do I prevent a hair tourniquet?

This one is tough. Hair tourniquets can happen to anybody. Being aware of the condition can go a long way towards prevention. When you know of the risk, you will naturally be more conscientious about removing stray hairs and threads that you see when you are dressing your baby or changing his or her diaper.