“Why does my baby cry in his sleep?” This is one of the most common questions we receive. Your baby is asleep and all of a sudden starts to cry. Are they asleep? Are they awake? What do they need? What does this mean? And then after a while, they may or may not fall back to sleep. So what’s the deal? Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t provide the most straightforward answers. That’s why we’re going to tell you exactly why this happens and what you should (and shouldn’t) do.
Let’s Look at Why Babies Cry
At a high level, babies cry because they are uncomfortable. The crying falls within two categories: they either need something or are expressing their discomfort. Most parents are familiar with the former—babies signaling that they need something to alleviate their discomfort. This could be pain, hunger, a wet diaper, and so on. What parents often miss is that babies also cry to vent their feelings about being uncomfortable and don’t actually need anything from you. They may be frustrated that they just woke up when they are actually still very tired. Read more about crying in “Crying: Is it good or bad? 5 Eye-opening facts parent needs to know.”
Here are the Most Common Reasons Why Babies Cry in Their Sleep
1. Baby Is Overtired
You know that feeling when you’re so tired you could cry? Well, babies feel it too! When they don’t get enough sleep, their little bodies release a stress hormone called cortisol. This makes it tough for them to settle down. Once a child is overtired, the situation can snowball if not resolved. This leads to bedtime issues, night wakes, and early rises. This is because the lack of sleep causes the stress hormone cortisol to be released in our body. This hormone’s goal is to keep us awake in times when we need to be alert. Unfortunately for children, this usually causes further sleep deprivation as the cortisol makes it harder for them to sleep. It also results in a hyperactive, overstimulated child during the day.
One of the best ways to help pay back the sleep debt and reduce cortisol is by giving your child the opportunity to sleep more during the most restorative part of the day. The deep NREM sleep that children only get before midnight has major restorative benefits for both body and brain. After midnight, our brains change to a lighter state of sleep until the morning when we wake up. Allowing your child to capture as much of that deep sleep as possible will reduce cortisol levels. This means a child will be less overtired, hence allowing them to sleep more and wake less during the night.
So, to tackle this, we’re all about an early bedtime. To read more on this, see “Your Secret Weapon: An Early Bedtime.” Research says that deep sleep before midnight is super important for their growing bodies and brains. Besides an early bedtime, you’ll also want to let them fall back to sleep on their own. If all needs have been addressed, a good cry can actually help them release a lot of that overtired energy! Often a baby just needs to vent that they’re awake when they don’t want to be. Do your best to be patient and avoid distracting them from their processing. This brings us to our next point.
2. Lack of Independent Sleep Skills
The way in which a child falls asleep at bedtime is the way they expect to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night. Are they used to being rocked or held to sleep? Then they might have a tough time when those conditions change during the night. That’s where independent sleep skills come in handy. Offering time to learn independent sleep skills helps eliminate night wakes. There are many ways to do this! Start by checking out our article “Sleep Training Methods: Breaking Down Each Method.” If you have tried sleep training before or are new to the world of sleep training, then a game changer can be enlisting the help of a sleep expert. We’re here to support you through this challenging transition as we’ve done for so many families over the years.We’re one free Discovery Call away!
3. Physical Discomfort
While we might assume that physical discomfort is the main culprit behind nighttime crying, it’s not always the case. Overtiredness can often masquerade as physical discomfort, making our babies extra fussy during sleep. Also, appetite is reduced overnight with the presence of melatonin in the system. So hunger is often not the issue (even if your baby falls back to sleep after feeding). But things like teething, illness, and tummy troubles can also play a role. So, it’s helpful during the day to tune in to our baby’s cues and address any underlying issues that might be causing them distress. Whether it’s offering pain medication, adjusting their diet, or using a humidifier, there are plenty of ways we can help our babies feel better during sleep. By addressing their needs and providing a supportive sleep environment, we can minimize those nighttime cries and help everyone get the rest they need.
It’s often very hard to hear your baby cry in their sleep since cries can mean so many things. But there are two key things to eliminating those overnight cries. Offering your child more time for sleep and more opportunity to learn independent sleep skills. Be consistent and over the weeks, you’ll see a dramatic reduction in how often your baby wakes up crying.