Why Do Babies Cry in Their Sleep? When to Worry or Relax
Updated Jan 4th 2023 | 7 min read
Updated Jan 4th 2023 | 7 min read
Written By Mandy Treeby Chief Baby Sleep Consultant
Crying is your baby’s go-to form of communication. They cry because they don’t have words to describe what they need, so crying can mean many things. This can make it difficult to soothe a crying baby – especially at night.
Here we’ll discuss what to do if your baby cries in their sleep, explain why not all crying is bad, and answer a question every parent wonders at some point, why do babies cry in their sleep?
IN THIS ARTICLE:
Hunger: Newborns are growing super-fast and need to eat often. Most times a newborn cries at night, it’s because they’re ready for their next meal. As your baby grows, you’ll anticipate your newborn’s night feeds and also learn what a ‘hungry’ cry sounds like.
Gas: Remember to gently burp your baby after each meal, including night feedings. Most babies experience gas, some worse than others. It can be super uncomfortable for them, burping after every feed is one way to help reduce it.
The Moro Reflex: If you’re wondering “Why is my newborn crying?” the answer may be the Moro Reflex. The Moro Reflex is simply involuntary movement of your newborn’s limbs.
Your newborn doesn’t have full control of their little body yet – that’s one of their baby developmental milestones – so sometimes they twitch or jerk in their sleep, which can cause them to cry out. The Moro Reflex can be managed by swaddling your baby.
Note: You can only swaddle your baby until they can roll over one way. After that, swaddling can be dangerous.
Babies older than newborn often cry at night for just the same reasons as during the day.
They’re hungry: Expect nighttime feedings to continue until between 5 and 9 months of age and always check with your pediatrician if you plan to night wean
They need a new diaper: This is an easy one to detect – but here’s a tip to help your baby sleep better: if your baby wets themselves at night, they’re not crying, and their diaper is absorbent, you can leave that diaper until morning. Changing your baby may wake them up and disturb their sleep. If they’ve soiled their diaper, it should be changed ASAP.
They’re too cold or too hot: Keep your baby comfortable by dressing them in one more layer than you wear and by maintaining a bedroom temperature of 68-72°F if possible. This is the optimal temperature for baby sleep and one of the ways to create a sleep-nourishing environment for your baby .
They’re Overtired: Sometimes babies or toddlers cry at night because they’re overtired . Overtiredness occurs when your baby stays up past their wake window. Staying awake past their wake window sends conflicting signals that are confusing and frustrating to your baby. That’s why it’s always important to watch your baby’s sleepy cues and wake windows.
They’re Teething: Teething can disrupt sleep and lead to nighttime tears. Teething discomfort at night can be soothed with chilled teething rings and gently gum massages.
They have a fever: Check your baby’s temperature if you fear they have a fever. 100.4°F and above is technically a baby fever, but there are some age considerations:
The act of falling asleep is a learned skill, your baby needs space and time to master it. This is called self-soothing, your baby’s natural ability to soothe themselves back to sleep. Sleep training with apps like the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ help you build this ability, so your baby get themselves back to sleep at night, even if they cry out and wake themselves.
There are a few other reasons a baby may cry in the night.
No Reason at All: The phrase “sleeping like a baby” conjures visions of peaceful quietude. In fact, babies are very noisy when they sleep: they whimper, cough, snort, and sometimes cry in their sleep – and there’s no reason at all. It’s simply a baby making noises.
Night crying therefore not necessarily mean your baby is upset or in pain. It may just be random.
That’s why we suggest you wait a second if you hear their baby cry at night. You’d be surprised how often a “crying baby” will self-soothe themselves to sleep. Checking on every sound will likely wake your baby, disrupting their sleep.
If your baby is crying for a long time and/or is sobbing inconsolably, you should check on them.
Separation Anxiety: Separation anxiety in baby can start around 6 months and reoccur periodically until around 18 months. Rest assured separation anxiety in baby is healthy and normal – in fact, it’s welcomed: separation anxiety in babies shows that your baby understands object permanence.
In other words, they understand that people and objects exist even when they can’t see them. When they have this realization, they may wake up, not see you, and become a bit uncertain.
Sleep Regressions: Baby sleep regressions occur periodically as your baby grows over their first two years. They always coincide with developmental milestones, such as learning to roll over or a growth spurt. For that reason, sleep regressions can be seen as “sleep progressions.”
Toddlers cry in their sleep for many of the same reasons as younger babies, but sometimes toddlers cry because they’re having a nightmare. While nightmares more typically begin around or after your baby’s 2 nd birthday, they can occur a bit earlier. If your baby wakes from a nightmare, gently reassure them from the doorway. If they’re crying inconsolably or sobbing, you should cuddle them to calm them down.
Night Feedings: If your newborn cries in their sleep or your baby is less than one year old, they may cry at night because they’re hungry. You’ll come to know your baby’s feeding schedule, so this one will ideally be an easy solve.
Tip: Room-Share for 6 months to make night feedings easy on yourself.
Tip 2: Dream feeding your baby can help them sleep longer at night. To dream feed, you anticipate when your baby will next be hungry. You then gently remove them from their crib and feed them while they’re half awake.
Swaddling: Swaddling can reduce the Moro Reflex that sometimes jars newborns awake.
Pacifiers: If your baby uses a pacifier , leave a few extra ones in their crib. This way your baby can find a replacement if theirs falls out at night, reducing the likelihood of a wakeup.
Give Them a Moment: If your baby cries in their sleep and you know they’re not hungry, wait a moment to see if the crying passes. Sometimes the cry is just a blip. Many babies will self-soothe themselves back to sleep. Going in to check on every noise may disrupt their sleep even more.
Reassure from Afar: If you do check on your baby and you know they’re not in immediate danger, offer brief, soft reassurances from the doorway. This way they hear your soothing voice without being stimulated and waking up more.
Soft Pats on the Back: If reassuring from the doorway doesn’t work, first try gentle pats on the back to see if this helps settle your baby.
If the gentle methods of soothing your baby don’t work, some other ways to soothe a crying baby include:
If you know why your baby is crying – for example, they’re hungry – solve that problem and see if the crying subsides. If your baby is crying for no apparent reason and doesn’t have a fever, leave them for a few minutes to see if they settle themselves back to sleep.
Often there are reasons for a baby to cry at night, such as hunger or a dirty diaper, but other times a baby will cry out once or twice simply reflexively. That’s why experts recommend waiting a moment before checking on a crying baby.
Colic is different from crying because colic goes on for longer, colic is inconsolable wailing, your baby's face turns red, and babies with colic often draw their legs into themselves. If your baby exhibits these signs of colic for an extended period of time, consult with your pediatrician.
Often times a baby cries after feeding at night because they have gas. Remember to gently burp your baby after their meals, including night feedings.
“The excessively crying infant: etiology and treatment,” Pediatric Annals.
“Infant crying: nature, physiologic consequences, and select interventions,” Neonatal Network Journal.
“Preventing early infant sleep and crying problems and postnatal depression: a randomized trial,” Pediatrics.
“Behavioural sleep treatments and nighttime crying in infants: challenging the status quo,” Sleep Medicine Reviews.
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.