FAQ

How to soothe a crying baby in his sleep

When a baby starts crying in their sleep, caregivers may worry that something is wrong. However, in most cases, for babies, crying during sleep is a phase rather than a sign of a serious problem. For many caregivers, sleep-related issues are among the biggest challenges during the baby and young child’s life years. Sleep problems are common and affect at least 30% of children.

Here are the reasons why a baby may cry in sleep, how to relieve it, and the normal sleep cycles you can expect at different ages.

Why do babies cry in their sleep?

Newborns and young babies may growl, cry or cry while they sleep. The bodies of very young children have not yet mastered the challenges of a regular sleep cycle, so it is common for them to wake up frequently or make strange sounds while sleeping. For very young babies, crying is their main form of communication. It is therefore logical that babies cry often and that they can also cry during their sleep.

As long as a baby does not show other concerning symptoms, such as other signs of illness or pain, this is developmentally normal, not a sign that something is wrong. As babies develop new ways of expressing themselves, crying during sleep can be a sign of a nightmare or night terror. Toddlers and older babies who cry in sleep, especially when moving around in bed or making other sounds, may have night terrors.

Nightmares occur during light sleep, or during sleep with random eye movements. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur when a child becomes very restless during the deeper stages of their sleep. Children are more likely to cry from night terrors early in the night.
Night terrors are relatively rare and usually occur in children between the ages of 4 and 12. Night terrors are more likely to occur if a child is sick or sleep deprived.

How to soothe the baby

When a baby cries briefly in his sleep, he often settles down on his own. Taking it may wake him up, disrupting his sleep. If the crying continues, try talking softly to the baby or rubbing his back or tummy. It can help them transition into another stage of their sleep and help them stop crying.

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Breastfed babies who nurse in their sleep may find comfort in breastfeeding. Parents need to decide whether or not the baby is likely to wake up after breastfeeding and assess whether they are willing to take the risk of waking him up. It can also be helpful to simply observe the baby’s sleep pattern. Some babies emit soft cries when they fall deeply asleep or immediately before waking up. Identifying the baby’s typical sleep pattern can help parents assess the cause of crying.

Some babies may cry in their sleep when they are sick or teething, but the pain that causes the crying usually wakes the baby. Parents can consult a pediatrician on how to relieve the baby’s pain.

Although we don’t yet know when nightmares start, a parent who thinks they hear their baby having a nightmare can provide relief by talking calmly or rubbing their back. Babies who are still breastfed can also find comfort in breastfeeding.

If a baby wakes up from a nightmare, comfort them and follow a soothing sleep ritual to get them back to sleep. Older babies and toddlers may need reassurance that the nightmare wasn’t real.

When to call a doctor

Parents should talk to the doctor about a child who has experienced a sudden change in sleep patterns. Caregivers should talk to a doctor about nighttime crying and other sleep problems when they occur:

– a child cries out in pain
– a child’s sleep patterns suddenly change
– a child’s sleep disturbances last for several nights and affect the child’s or caregiver’s ability to function
feeding difficulties, such as a poor latch, lack of breast milk, or formula sensitivity issues, disrupt sleep

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What are normal sleep patterns by age?

There is no single normal sleep pattern in babies and toddlers. Sleep patterns change rapidly during the first three years of life, with many variations between children. The amount of crying during sleep also changes over time.

Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults and spend more time in light sleep. Which means they’re more likely to cry, growl, or make other noises while they sleep. Cultural and family norms can also impact sleep expectations. With guidance from a healthcare professional, caregivers can choose sleep strategies that work for them, their culture, and their baby’s needs and personality.

This section discusses average sleep patterns for babies of different ages. However, there are many variations and if a baby has a different sleep pattern than those listed below, there is often nothing to worry about.

Newborns (0-1 months)

Sleep is unpredictable during the first month, often punctuated by brief periods of wakefulness followed by naps and long periods of sleep. Some babies seem to have confused day and night. Crying during sleep is common. Babies usually wake up every 2 to 3 hours, and sometimes even more often, to eat. Exposing a baby to natural daylight and establishing a routine can help regulate their sleep pattern. However, for most babies at this age, a regular sleep schedule or long periods of sleep at night are unlikely.

Older newborns (1-3 months)

Newborns between the ages of 1 and 3 months are still adjusting to life outside the womb. Some begin to have a regular sleep schedule, although they are unlikely to sleep through the night. At this age, babies often cry in their sleep or wake up crying if they are hungry. Sleep sessions typically last 3.5 hours or less.

Infants (3-7 months)

Babies between the ages of 3 and 7 months can develop a regular sleep schedule. Between 3 and 7 months, some babies begin to sleep longer or sleep through the night. There are still considerable variations between babies. Some babies also experience sleep regression around 4 months which changes their sleep pattern. Later in this period, many babies develop a sleep schedule that includes two daily naps and a longer nighttime sleep period. Establishing a daily routine and a nightly sleep routine can help.

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Infants (7-12 months)

Most babies sleep through the night by the time they reach 9 months old. Around the age of one year, some babies only take one nap a day. Others may need two naps a day well into their second year of life.

Toddlers (12 months and up)

Young children need 12 to 14 hours of sleep a day, split between their nap and their nighttime sleep. Most of them only take one nap a day by the age of 18 months. Toddlers may see their sleep patterns change occasionally when something disrupts their routine, when they are sick, or when they experience a significant developmental change. In particular, they may cry more than usual. A child who regularly sleeps through the night, for example, may wake up at 3 a.m. ready to play for a few nights.

Sleep can be difficult, especially in the first few months and years. Every baby is unique and has their own needs and tendencies.
Parents can find ways to work with baby’s temperament to maximize their sleep, soothe their crying, and make them feel safe and comfortable at night. In most cases, crying during sleep is not dangerous or a sign of a serious problem. Sooner or later, almost all babies do, and eventually, all babies sleep.

Sources

Hiscock, H., & Davey, MJ (2012). Sleep disorders in infants and children.

Mindell, JA, et al. (2016). Development of infant and toddler sleep patterns: Real-world data from a mobile application.

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