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Genetics Make Infants Look Like Tired, Middle-Aged Accountants

Pediatricians explain how kids get dark circles and bags under their eyes, and why it's rarely cause for concern.

When babies and toddlers have dark circles and bags under their otherwise beautiful, twinkling eyes, it may make parents wonder why their kid looks like that overworked dude Phil from accounting. The difference between your tyke and the guy getting chewed out in the conference room is that only one of them is stressed about quarterly reports and an impending divorce (unless you and your partner do a lot of yelling). Most children who look like stressed-out adults aren’t actually worried — as adorable as it might be to believe it so. They are more likely suffering from infant allergies or genetically predisposed to what scientists and pretentious makeup salespeople call periorbital dark circles.

READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Genetics

“Dark circles and bags under the eyes are usually no cause for alarm,” Andrew J. Bernstein, MD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics Northwestern University, and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, tells Fatherly. “They can point to allergies, ‘allergic shiners,’ a lack of sleep, or, most commonly, they can just be a hereditary coloration or shape of the eyes.”

Dark circles form under the eyes of kids for the same physiological reasons, if not the same behavioral reasons, as they do in adults. The skin around the eye is thinner and more transparent than other parts of the face so it can’t fully cover up the soft tissue and veins surround the eye. For some, this results in dark circles. People predisposed to eye circles can coat their under-eye area with makeup, but they can’t, research shows, treat the problem at its source. Dark circles and bags are sometimes made worse by fluid retention, which is why they are more visible after a salty meal. Most obviously, lack of sleep causes blood vessels under the eyes to dilate, while upping fluid retention, resulting in even puffier, darker eyes.

Kids, like adults, may simply have temporary dark circles around their eyes from being tired. But when children are getting enough sleep and still look worried that they did a bad job negotiating a mortgage rate, parents understandably worry that there might be an underlying, potentially concerning cause. The good news is that it’s probably nothing terribly serious.

“Most often the dark circles are not due to lack of sleep or poor health,” Alison Mitzner, a New York–based pediatrician, explains to Fatherly, noting that genetics and seasonal allergies are almost always to blame. Nasal congestion from allergies restricts blood flow, making the veins under the eye expand and darken, resulting in circles that are more visible depending on how light a child’s skin is. That’s also why their eyes look like this when they’re sick.

If dark circles show up out of nowhere, and don’t seem like a symptom of sleeplessness, allergies, or some form of congestion, then it’s worth consulting with your pediatrician, Bernstein and Mitzner both note. In any case, there is no shame in asking your doctor about it to be safe, even if they’re just going to hold up a mirror.

“Your pediatrician can work with you to determine the cause to ensure there are no other health issues that, although rare, may be the cause,” Mitzner says. After all, you don’t want to lose any more sleep over it.