Does your baby cry in their sleep? Find out why

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Hearing your baby cry suddenly when they were peacefully asleep only moments before, can be distressing for you as a parent. So, you head into their nursery to check on them, only to realize they’d been crying in their sleep. This baffling behavior often leaves parents feeling anxious. And we’re here to tell you that it’s a perfectly normal part of infancy.

Understanding why babies cry in their sleep can reassure and equip you with strategies to soothe your baby. Let’s delve into the intricacies of baby sleep cycles and examine the triggers that can disrupt their sleep and lead to sudden bouts of nighttime crying. This blog delves into the reasons behind your baby’s cries, whether brief or prolonged, and offers expert advice on how to soothe your little one for a restful night’s sleep for both of you.

Understanding sleep patterns in babies

Before we delve into why babies cry in their sleep, it is important to understand that baby sleep is vastly different from adult sleep. In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies do not develop regular sleep until at least six months of age. Newborns typically need 16 to 17 hours of sleep daily but in one to two-hour stretches. As babies get older, they need less sleep. However, these patterns are not set in stone and vary from baby to baby.

Another factor to keep in mind is your baby’s sleep cycles. Newborns have two distinct sleep stages, progressing to four stages (similar to adults) as they age. These two stages are REM and NREM—Rapid eye movement and non-rapid eye movement, respectively. Each of these stages lasts for approximately the same duration of time.

In REM or active sleep, your baby will make small movements, their fingers might twitch, they may move their mouths, their limbs might jerk and their breathing may speed up.

In NREM or quiet sleep, your baby will be still and not make these movements.

Why do babies cry in their sleep?

As you may have guessed, REM sleep plays a role in why your baby cries in their sleep. During REM or active sleep, your baby can cry or whimper with eye or mouth movements, and tiny twitches. As your baby slumbers, they cycle from active sleep to quiet sleep every 45 minutes or so. Therefore, they could cry multiple times throughout the night.

Crying is the only way your baby knows how to communicate. If your baby begins to cry and does not settle within a few minutes, there might be another reason apart from REM sleep that is causing it. Here are a few common reasons your baby might begin to cry while sleeping:

  • Hunger: Babies grow fast but have tiny tummies, meaning they wake up every couple of hours to eat. They cry to let you know they’re hungry.
  • Suckling: Babies enjoy sucking pacifiers, it helps to soothe them. So, if your baby’s paci falls out at night, there are bound to be a few tears.
  • Moro or startle reflex: The moro reflex is when your baby suddenly startles from the perceived sensation of falling (for example, if their head suddenly shifts position). Being startled can even move adults to tears sometimes.
  • Discomfort: Certain types of discomfort, such as overheating or feeling cold, teething, a dirty diaper, or a sudden noise, could disturb your little one and cause them to cry.
  • Overtiredness: If your baby misses a nap or gets overstimulated before bedtime it will likely be a night of tears.

Baby cries in sleep: Tips for parents

The first instinct when parents hear their baby crying is to go to them and soothe them back to sleep. However, because babies are restless sleepers thanks to REM sleep, try to curb that instinct and see if your baby settles on their own.

If your baby continues to cry, it may be that they are hungry, hot, cold, or need a change. If you’ve checked all of these factors but your little one continues to cry, you could:

  • Change your baby’s position: Your baby could have moved in their sleep towards the edge of the crib and this can be uncomfortable. Try settling your little one by placing them in the middle of the mattress (on their back).
  • Use a swaddle: Babies enjoy the feeling of being wrapped and snuggled up, so consider using a swaddle if you aren’t already. If you’re new to swaddling, here’s how to do it.
  • Tummy rubs and a soothing tone: Instead of taking baby out of the crib, you could try using a soothing voice and gently rubbing their stomach to calm them.

Baby crying in sleep: When to be concerned

Certain things are out of your control and may cause excessive crying such as colic, acid reflux, a milk allergy, or an infection. If you have exhausted all efforts to try and console your baby yet they continue to cry for an extended period (upwards of two to three hours continuously), it is best to contact your doctor. You may need to consider heading to the hospital if your baby:

  • Has a high temperature.
  • Is vomiting.
  • Has difficulty breathing or is breathing rapidly.
  • Has a reddish rash which could be a sign of meningitis.
  • Has become pale.

Don’t second guess yourself about calling for help, it is always better to contact your healthcare provider and assuage your worries, they are used to such calls, especially from new parents.

According to the Mayo Clinic, newborns can cry for up to four hours per day. This can be a lot for parents, especially late at night. So, while you’re trying to calm your baby and lull them back to sleep. Remember to set some time aside for yourself to relax. If you’re relaxed it will be easier for you to soothe your little one.

 If you’ve tried everything to stop your baby crying, but nothing seems to work right away, and you begin to get frustrated, it’s better to step away. Take a moment to listen to music, take deep breaths, make a cup of tea, and try again when you’re more grounded. 

Luckily, the crying won’t last forever and with time, you’ll learn your baby’s cues, understand their needs better, and be able to soothe them like a pro.

Sources:

  1. Why do babies cry in their sleep? Children’s Hospital Colorado. Frequent Night Awakenings: Why Is My Baby Crying During Sleep?
  2. What to do when a baby cries? 2022. Mayo Clinic. Crying baby: What to do when your newborn cries.
  3. How to soothe a crying baby. 2019. Medical News Today. How to soothe a baby crying in their sleep.
  4. Helping your baby sleep. American Academy of Pediatrics. Getting Your Baby to Sleep.
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