What to Do When Your Baby Cries in Their Sleep

What to Do When Your Baby Cries in Their Sleep

If you’re at a loss, frantically searching why my baby cries in sleep, we feel you.

This can be stressful, to say the least!

Not knowing what they are trying to communicate through their sobs can leave you in tears, too.

We hear you, mama.

The good news is, in most cases, this may just be part of their development ‒ particularly if they are still in the newborn phase.

It’s quite normal for tiny babies to cry suddenly in their sleep, and often without waking up at all.

So what’s happening here?

And what can you do about it?

Let’s find out, together.

In this article: 📝

  • Why do babies cry in their sleep?
  • What to do if your baby cries in sleep but doesn’t wake up
  • Why do babies suddenly cry in their sleep?

Why do babies cry in their sleep?

Probably not the response you’d hoped for, but there’s no one answer here.

There are lots of reasons why baby’s crying in their sleep.

The thing to remember is that you’re not alone in this, mama.

1. Their sleep is developing and they’re connecting a sleep cycle

News flash: newborn babies sleep. A lot.

In fact, it’s what they do best, accumulating up to 18 hours of sleep a day, in some cases.

The thing is, at this point in their lives, they’re still learning how to do it.

Hold on… You know they’re going to be learning how to sit and speak, but sleep?

Is this a thing?

Interestingly, we are not born with our circadian rhythm intact, and it can be even more challenging for pre-term babies to develop.

We have to learn how to submerge ourselves in that sleep-wake cycle.

That means that at this point in their lives, your newborn still has their sleep training wheels on, so to speak.

While they go about perfecting the art of the snooze, they spend about half their time in deep sleep and the other half in an in-between phase called Rapid Eye Movement (or REM).

The REM stage is essentially a light sleep, where they may be grunting and squirming.

As they move between this state and a heavier sleep, they might twitch, whimper, or move their limbs a bit.

So, if your baby rolls over in their sleep and cries, it may simply be a case of going through border control from one sleep cycle to another.

During REM, you may notice some other interesting processes hard at work.

Baby’s eyes might be visibly moving behind their lids, and their breathing may seem irregular.

These are all part of the REM chapter of your newborn’s sleep cycle.

2. They might be trying to communicate something

Crying is really their only method of communication at this point.

They might be too hot, too cold, hungry, or have a wet diaper.

Knowing which one it is can be challenging at first, but things will get easier with time and experience.

And interestingly, according to this (small) study, how often you feed baby at night could have an impact on whether they have any sleep disturbances.

3. They’re going through a developmental progression

If your baby has passed the newborn phase, they may be going through a developmental progression.

You might have heard this described as sleep regression, which, to baby sleep expert, Alicia Dyshon, can be a negative term to describe something that’s all part of baby’s development.

After sleeping soundly for a few months, they suddenly decide to reject the groove you’ve got into.

The most common times for “sleep regressions” are at four months, eight months, twelve months, eighteen months, and two years old.

(But this isn’t prescriptive ‒ some babies don’t have “sleep regressions”, and some have them at times between those ages.)

They generally signal some sort of change is afoot ‒ teething, growth spurts, new physical or mental milestones, or that they are curiously adapting to a new world filled with awesome stimuli.

It’s a whole new world to baby, after all.

And this too, shall pass ‒ “sleep regressions” usually only last for a few weeks.

You’ll be back to some sort of routine in no time.

4. They might be having a nightmare

When they’re a little older ‒ about the time of toddlerhood ‒ crying in their sleep may be a sign that they’re having a bad dream.

Baby nightmares are a thing.

5. They may be sick

If they are inconsolable or crying more than normal, something else might be up.

Other signs to watch out for?

If they are very fussy, not feeding properly, or have low energy, it’s probably worth checking in with your doctor

6. They may be experiencing parasomnia

Parasomnias are disruptive sleep-related disorders that can affect people at any age ‒ from babies to adults ‒ although they’re not too common before 12 months old.

If you think your baby, toddler, or child has experienced a parasomnia episode, it can be worth checking in with your doctor to see if there’s anything else that could be the cause.

Common parasomnias in children are night terrors or confusion arousals.

Both can be scary to see as a parent.

You may feel inclined to try and wake your child, but it’s generally not recommended to attempt to wake them during these parasomnia episodes.

Similar to sleepwalking (another parasomnia), it can be best instead, to simply stay with them and ensure they stay safe.

These types of arousals are common when toddlers or babies are over-tired, are going through something stressful in their day-to-day life, or they’ve had a lot of recent screen time.

What to do if your baby cries in sleep but doesn’t wake up

The difficulty is, while your instincts may be to pick them up and cuddle them, there’s a bit of a catch-22 here.

While you want to soothe your baby, you also want to ensure that they get their rest and don’t necessarily want to wake them up.

Um. Easier said than done.

You’re a mama ‒ springing into action is your natural state ‒ and science proves it.

This recent study set out to explore what happens in a mama’s brain when they hear the sound of their baby crying.

The results? Across the board, the sound-activated the parts of the brain that are associated with movement, caregiving, and speech.

In a nutshell, the sound of our children crying triggers our instant “get up and help” response.

We want to pick them up, hold them, and comfort them with our words and songs.

So on one hand, you don’t want to disturb them, and on the other, you want to be there for them.

Classic motherhood dilemma.

So how do we live in a world where all these things coexist?

Here are some tips on how to soothe a baby who is crying in their sleep:

  • Try using a swaddle for your newborn or a sleep sack for your older baby. This may stop them from startling themselves awake with those little reflex actions (also known as the Moro reflex.
  • Give it a moment before rushing in. Yep, this is challenging. But for newborns in particular, try to give them some time to settle into the next sleep phase.
  • Pause before immediately picking them up. Before taking them in your arms, try to soothe them while they are still in their crib. A belly rub can go a long way.
  • See if they are too hot or too cold by checking the nape of their neck. Add or remove layers accordingly.
  • Serve up the good stuff. If they continue to cry, it may be a sign that they are hungry. It’s true ‒ not only do they sleep a lot, newborns eat incredibly frequently too, usually about every two to three hours. It’s okay to wake them up to meet this demanding feeding schedule. And it’s a win-win if you’re breastfeeding, because these frequent feeds help stimulate your milk production. As they get older, the times between feeds will increase.

Why do babies suddenly cry in their sleep?

The sudden crying in their sleep can be a harsh wake-up call for you, mama.

But typically, if your baby suddenly cries in their sleep but doesn’t wake up, it might just be them navigating their unique sleep cycle.

Or it might be a sign that they are growing and developing.

Or they’re trying to communicate something to you in the only way they know how.

But if you are at all concerned, check in with your healthcare provider.

Your Peanut Community is also there for you, whenever you want to talk about it.

We don’t have to do this alone.


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