It can be pretty scary if you wake to hear your baby suddenly crying hysterically in the middle of the night.
Or for that matter when you hear the sound of your little one waking up from a nap crying their eyes out.
If you are wondering why this is happening then you are not alone, because this scenario is a lot more common then you may realize.
In this post I’ll take you through why a baby may cry at night for no apparent reason, and what you can do to help soothe your little one the next time it happens.
You might notice that I’ve interchanged “waking up crying” and “crying while asleep”, because most of the time the same causes (and solutions) apply.
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Why Do Babies Cry In Their Sleep?
Typically a baby will wake up at night crying for a variety of physical and developmental reasons, including discomfort, hunger and separation anxiety.
Here are 8 of the most common reasons why your baby might be doing so:
One of the most common reasons for that middle-of-the-night wake up is down to hunger, because as we all know a hungry newborn is a hangry newborn.
Some babies will wake up crying hysterically to let you know they need feeding, while others will wake up half asleep, perhaps crying with their eyes closed.
So if you have a newborn, 2 month old or 3 month old baby who wakes up screaming, there’s a good chance that they are signalling their next feed is due and they want it now.
The digestive system of a baby is still developing, which makes it more challenging for your little one to fully and easily digest the proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the food they are served, which includes formula or breast milk.
Most babies start teething at around 6 months, but it’s not unheard of for babies to start a few months earlier than this, perhaps even at 2 or 3 months old.
As you can imagine, the sensation of a tooth pushing against a gum can be very painful for an infant, so it’s no wonder that a teething baby will wake up crying if they experience this pain in the night.
Other areas of discomfort that might be causing your little one to wake up and voice their dissatisfaction relate to the environment in which they are sleeping in.
For optimal comfort a baby should sleep in a room that’s between 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit (around 20 degreed Celsius) in both winter and summer.
Achieving this temperature in summer can be difficult, especially without running the air conditioning all night, which is why it’s important to dress your baby in suitable clothing in warmer months.
Similarly, in winter it can be challenging or costly to maintain this temperature throughout the night, so in those colder winter months you may want to dress your newborn in another layer or use a sleep sack or pajamas with a higher TOG rating.
So if there’s a lot of light flooding into your baby’s room that could wake them up from an otherwise good sleep, this could explain their crying.
Fevers, stomach aches, sore throats, common colds – these are all common illnesses that can cause a baby to wake up crying or screaming in the night.
5. Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is common in young children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, and if your baby is crying at night for no reason then this could be the cause.
What’s happening is your baby realizes how dependent they are on the people who care for them (i.e. mom, dad, grandparents or other carers), and they freak out and don’t feel safe when they realize you’re not with them.
The good news is that separation anxiety is a completely normal part of your child’s development, and something that they will typically outgrow.
But in the meantime, reassuring your child and sticking to a consistent routine might be all you can do to help manage this phase.
6. Growth Spurts
During your baby’s first year they will go through 8 unique leaps or growth spurts (starting from round 4 weeks), with each stage representing a specific change accompanied by the learning of new skills.
During a developmental leap your baby will experience sensory changes that affect your child’s sense of taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch – all of which can be somewhat upsetting or stressful for a child and consequently result in unsettled sleep.
In addition, growth spurts can make a baby even hungrier than usual (just think of all those calories they are burning while growing and learning new skills).
As a result you baby will wake up really hungry in the night and may cry at the top of their lungs to let you know they need feeding!
Interestingly and helpfully for us parents, babies make quite a distinctive sound when they are overtired.
So if you hear a cry in the night that is nasal, whiny and consistent, there’s a good chance it’s because your baby is overtired.
Must Read: How To Break The Cycle Of An Overtired Baby
8. Transitioning Between Sleep Cycles
If your baby is crying in their sleep but they are not awake, if they are waking up crying with their eyes closed, or if they are crying at night for no reason, then it could simply be because they are transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next.
It’s common for a baby to briefly wake up at the end of a cycle, cry for a few minutes, and then go back to sleep.
If you look at your child through their baby monitor you might notice their eyes are not open even though they are crying, and this is a big clue that they are transitioning between cycles.
I remember vividly when my daughter was a baby we would take care to be super quiet around the house when she neared the 40 minute mark, because provided we didn’t disturb her she’d usually go back to sleep despite crying for one or two minutes.
Do Babies Have Nightmares?
If you are wondering why your baby wakes up screaming then you might naturally ask if they are having a nightmare or bad dream.
Experts cannot be sure, but it’s generally thought that dreams and nightmares begin when a child is closer to two years of age.
So if you have a newborn of infant who is crying in their sleep or awakes screaming, it’s more likely down to one of the reasons we listed above rather than a nightmare or bad dream.
What Should I Do When My Baby Cries At Night?
We’ve covered why a baby might wake up crying or screaming, so to wrap things up let’s now take a look at some of the ways to soothe your child, as well as how to stop your baby crying at night in the first place:
- Consider basic needs first. Think of these as a simple checklist you can run through in your head: Is your baby hungry? Could their diaper need changing? Do they feel too warm or too cold? Has their pacifier dropped out?
- Check if they are in physical pain. If they are teething, do you have anything you could give them to relieve the pain? If you suspect they have trapped wind, maybe you need to rub their belly or pat their back. If they have a cold, could a humidifier help? And of course, if you believe your baby is in a lot of pain or anything could be seriously wrong you should call your doctor so they can take a look or advise on the appropriate care.
- Develop a consistent bedtime routine. This one is more preventative, but it’s worth stressing that unless your child has a strong and consistent bedtime routine, it can be difficult for them to feel settled and to soothe themselves to sleep whenever they wake up suddenly. Things like winding down before bed, brushing teeth, having a bath and reading stories are all great ways to develop that much needed routine that babies thrive on and they can also help break the cycle of overtired baby.
Must Read: The Ultimate Guide To Baby & Toddler Sleep