6 Reasons Why A Baby Cries In Sleep And How To Comfort Them

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When a newborn cries while sleeping, it can confuse their parents and make them feel anxious. But don’t worry, as long as the infant isn’t experiencing any pain or illness, crying while sleeping is a normal part of development. Most adults have a sleep cycle that lasts for up to 120 minutes. In contrast, most babies have a 50-minute sleep cycle for the first nine months of their lives (1). These shorter sleep cycles could cause the baby to wake up and cry or cry while half asleep. However, other reasons could also cause them to exhibit this behavior.

Some newborns and babies who cry in their sleep may need their parents or caregivers to soothe them when they wake up, while others may go to sleep without any assistance.

Keep reading to understand the sleep patterns of babies, why they cry while sleeping, and how parents can soothe them.

Why Do Babies Cry In Their Sleep?

Crying can be a way for a baby to communicate with parents or caregivers. Babies may cry during sleep due to various reasons(2).

  • Hunger can cause a baby to cry during sleep. It may occur when the baby is inadequately fed before bedtime. Prompt feeding may calm the baby and soothe them back to sleep.
  • Dirty diapers can irritate babies and make them cry while asleep.
  • Babies may cry if they feel too cold or hot. Changes in room temperature and inappropriate dressing could be a reason for it.
  • Pacifier falling out of the baby’s mouth may disturb the baby and make them cry during sleep.

Some may believe that babies cry while sleeping due to nightmares. However, it is not fully known if nightmares and night terrors cause babies to cry during sleep. Also, these conditions are usually more common among toddlers and preschoolers(3).

How To Soothe A Baby Crying In Sleep?

Listen to your baby’s crying sound while they are sleeping. Some babies who cry to communicate may cry loudly and not stop crying until you respond. Babies who cry due to room temperature changes, soiled diapers, hunger, or sickness may fall asleep only when the problem is addressed.

You may soothe the baby in a low voice and ensure there’s less light in the room to make the baby feel it’s nighttime. Bright light, loud conversations, or playing may make them think it’s not bedtime, and they may tend to repeat the same thing on the next day (3). This may quickly become a habit.

Babies who cry due to sleep cycle changes may have a low cry and often appear to be in a semi-conscious state. You can wait and watch. If they stop crying and continue with their sleep, then there is no need to soothe them.

If you don’t notice any apparent reason for crying, you may soothe the baby by singing or humming in a low voice.Avoid turning on the lights in the room since it can awaken the baby. You can also place the baby’s crib next to your bed to make it easier for you to attend to the baby (4).

What Are Normal Sleep Patterns By Age?

Newborn babies can sleep for 16 hours a day,divided into multiple naps across daytime and nighttime(5)(6). A newborn is likely to wake up every three to four hours, even at night, for a feed. If the baby does not wake up on their own, you may have to wake them, especially during the initial weeks when you need to feed them eight to 12 times a day(7). It is essential to wake and breastfeed your baby as per recommendations for adequate growth and development.

Babies may have two to five hours of continuous sleep for the first three months. Most babies tend to sleep for eight to ten hours at night with a few hours of daytime naps for the first three months. As they grow, the total hours of daytime sleep may reduce, while the total hours of nighttime sleep may increase.

Stages of sleep in babies

In babies, there is usually an equal division across active sleep or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. You may notice movements or jerking of legs and arms, and side to side eye movement beneath closed eyelids during the REM stage of sleep. Some babies may show periodic breathing, that is, the cessation of breathing for five to ten seconds during this stage. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep or deep sleep is the other stage of sleep in which babies may not move and have deep and regular breathing.

Many parents get anxious when their newborn cries in sleep. However, crying in babies is fairly common and part of their development. Babies have a shorter sleep cycle, prompting them to wake up often. Other reasons for your baby to cry while sleeping can be soiled diapers, hunger, some physical illness, or they feel cold or hot. While some babies go to sleep soon, others may need caressing from their parents or caregivers. To cope with the situation, you can also learn soothing techniques like dinging or humming in a low voice.

Key Pointers

  • Hunger, wet diapers, feeling hot or cold, separation anxiety, and physical illness can be reasons for a baby to cry while sleeping.
  • You may soothe the baby in a low voice, and if they do not stop crying, try to look for reasons and respond to their needs.
  • Ensure that your baby is following sleeping patterns appropriate for their age, such as it is normal for newborns to wake up every three to four hours during the night.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. How Your Baby’s Sleep Cycle Differs From Your Own; Sleep Foundation
2. Baby Crying in Sleep – What Does It Mean and How Should You Handle It?; The Baby Sleep Site
3. Nightmares and Night Terrors in Preschoolers; American Academy of Pediatrics
4. Why does my baby cry in their sleep?; National Childbirth Trust
5. Infant Sleep; Stanford Children’s Health
6. Newborn sleep: what to expect; Raising Children Network(Australia)
7. Sleep in Your Baby’s First Year; Cleveland Clinic
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Dr. Elna Gibson

(MBChB, MMed, Paeds)
Dr. Elna Gibson is a general pediatrician. She did her MBChB and specialization as a pediatrician in South Africa at the University of Pretoria. She obtained MMed Pediatrics (masters) with distinction in 1993. As a young specialist, Dr. Gibson spent some time in the Netherlands, and then settled in the Vaal Triangle where she has practiced for 25 years. She... more

Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more