If you are at a loss, frantically searching up why my baby cries in sleep, we feel you. This can be stressful. Not knowing what they are trying to communicate through their sobs can leave you in tears yourself.
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 is the job of the mama in this situation?
Why do babies cry in their sleep?
Probably not the response you’d hoped for, but there’s no one answer here. The reasons for babies crying in their sleep are multiple, and may depend on how old your baby is.
Let’s take a look.
Why do babies suddenly cry in their sleep?
Here are some possibilities:
1. They’re learning how to sleep
Newborn babies sleep a lot. In fact, it’s what they do best, accumulating up to eighteen 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. 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. 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 state 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.
3. They’re going through a sleep regression
If your baby has passed the newborn phase, they may be going through a sleep regression.
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 four, eight, and eighteen months. They generally signal some sort of change is afoot—teething, a growth spurt, or that they are curiously adapting to a new world filled with awesome stimuli.
Be comforted—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 and/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.
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, and 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.
The sound of our children crying makes us want to get going. We want to pick them up, hold them, and comfort them with our words and songs.
Basically, on the one hand, you don’t want to disturb them, and on the other, you want to be there for them. 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 or a sleep sack. This may stop them from startling themselves awake with those little reflex actions.
- 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 the pickup. 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. Add or subtract 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.
So, bottom line? If your baby cries in their sleep but doesn’t wake up, it might just be them navigating their unique sleep cycle.
Alternatively, it might be a sign that they are growing and developing—or that they are 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 can also be a valuable resource. We don’t have to do this alone.
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