3 reasons why your baby is crying in their sleep: causes and tips

Amy Bassett, BA, CLC, ALC, IBCLC, RLC / Pediatric Sleep Consultant & Lactation Consultant / Updated Apr 14, 2021
baby wakes up crying

Have you ever checked on your baby to see why they’re crying, and found them still - somehow - asleep? If so, you’re not alone in feeling confused about why babies sometimes cry in their sleep. Just another mystery about the littlest humans, parents are often unsure how to respond when their baby is sleeping with their eyes closed, yet crying out. 

Babies crying in their sleep can be alarming for many parents, and leads to questions about babies having nightmares, or being hungry, as well as how to help a crying baby return to a peaceful deep sleep. Understanding the most common reasons babies cry while still asleep will help you know what to do the next time your little one begins screaming or crying in their sleep.


Mom picks up baby that wakes up crying

Although it’s not common for babies to cry in their sleep, it does happen. Some parents turn on the monitor when they hear their baby cry out, only to be surprised to see their baby’s eyes are closed. Other parents may go to check on their baby, only to have the crying suddenly stop, and find their baby fast asleep. This behavior may have you scratching your head, or wondering if something is wrong. Understanding the reasons babies cry in their sleep can help you know what to look for and how to help your baby.

  1. Like adults, babies sleep in cycles. But unlike adults, babies transition between sleep cycles very rapidly, spending more time in REM sleep (also referred to as active sleep) than deep sleep. During this stage, you may notice your baby’s eyes moving a lot under their eyelids (this is where the term ‘rapid eye movement,’ or REM, comes from). Babies can even be seen moving their arms and legs, closing and opening their hands, twitching or jerking, or yes, even crying during REM sleep.

    With sleep cycles lasting just 40 minutes on average, many babies will experience a brief awakening at the end of each sleep cycle. During this brief awakening, babies may cry for a few minutes and put themselves back to sleep, or may not even fully awaken.

  2. When babies don’t get enough sleep, or are awake longer than they can comfortably manage, they can quickly become overtired. Overtiredness triggers fatigue-fighting hormones, which can make it even more challenging for babies to fall and stay asleep. Yes, it seems counter-intuitive, and yes, it can be a struggle. Overtiredness and big tears just before falling to sleep are the most common reasons your baby may be crying in their sleep.

  3. When teeth buds begin emerging, babies may be very uncomfortable - and they’ll let you know it. Teething babies are noticeably fussier, and will often whine due to the discomfort both day and night. If you suspect your baby may be working on a new tooth, you might notice more frequent mild crying or whimpering while sleeping. Ask your child’s pediatrician what they recommend for discomfort associated with teething.

Unless you’re concerned for their safety, it’s a good idea to wait and watch before intervening when your baby is crying in their sleep. When you respond too quickly, you may inadvertently wake your child all the way up, or prevent them from falling back to sleep on their own.

Brief episodes of crying during sleep are developmentally appropriate and okay, and don’t necessarily require help. So, the next time you discover your baby is crying, but with eyes closed, take a little step back and wait to see what happens next. Your baby may surprise you, and stop crying all on their own!

Most of us have watched our babies sleeping and wondered, “What are they dreaming about?” In reality, those sweet smiles you might catch your baby giving in their sleep are involuntary, and not in response to a dream (but we can imagine, right?). Dreaming begins later in life, typically around age two. The good news? Babies don’t experience bad dreams, nightmares or night terrors,  and crying in their sleep is likely linked to the reasons listed above.

3 reasons why your baby is crying in their sleep: causes and tips

Occasional crying during sleep isn’t usually a cause for alarm. Even still, most parents want to do everything they can to ensure their baby sleeps peacefully. Afterall, if your baby is frequently screaming or crying in their sleep, they may be able to sleep through it - but you may not.

Thanks to their still-developing nervous system and frequent need to eat, newborns wake more frequently than older babies, and this includes more sleep disturbances like crying without being fully awake. Newborns are also less likely to have the skills to settle themselves to sleep (and back to sleep) without help.

If your baby wakes up crying, or is randomly crying while sleeping, and you know they’re not hungry or needing a diaper change, there may be other solutions before becoming too concerned.

Ensuring your baby isn’t too hot or cold during sleep times can help your baby sleep more comfortably. Experts recommend setting the temperature between 68℉ and 72℉, and caution against dressing babies in heavy layers.

Usually whatever you’re wearing plus one layer is sufficient (e.g. a long-sleeved sleeper and sleep sack). If your newborn is crying in their sleep, do a quick check of their sleep environment and see if this helps settle them.

After the newborn period, babies go through a lot of developmental changes, including changes to how they sleep; we’re guessing you’ve heard of the 4 month sleep regression, or the equally dreadful 8 month sleep regression. Many parents decide to begin working on more independent sleep once their baby is past the newborn stage and closer to 6 months.

Babies who are just learning to sleep on their own may struggle more with transitioning between sleep cycles and self-soothing, meaning it’s worth giving your baby a few minutes to see if they’ll settle on their own if you hear them crying in their sleep.

We know it’s hard to wait when you hear your baby fussing in their sleep, but whining and whimpering during sleep is quite common, and many babies will fall back to sleep in minutes if given an opportunity - letting you do the same.

There’s a less talked about sleep regression that can occur around a child’s first birthday (and you thought you were in the clear…). The 12 month sleep regression can spell trouble with naps and nighttime; toddlers are also known for testing limits and resisting naps - a difficult combination. Any sleep loss caused by early morning rising, missed or short naps, and later bedtimes can lead to overtiredness.

If your 1 year old is crying uncontrollably at night, you’re not alone! Toddlers who are overtired will cry more before falling asleep, and may cry briefly between sleep cycles. Oftentimes, if toddlers are given a lovey or stuffed animal to sleep with, they’ll quickly seek comfort in the lovey and settle on their own without fully waking up, and put an end to your toddler crying in sleep.

Struggling with your baby crying for extended periods while trying to fall asleep? This is also a common issue, and the reason many families turn to Huckleberry for help managing their child’s sleep and creating healthy sleep habits that can last a lifetime. The first step to helping your baby fall asleep is to determine why they’re crying, and we can help with that.

Here are a few tips to help your baby stop crying and settle down enough to fall asleep

If you sense your baby is overtired, it’s best to condense your usual bedtime routine and help your baby begin to settle to sleep quickly. A baby that’s melting down during the bedtime routine often needs to sleep. Sometimes they’re crying simply because they’re tired! If your baby seems very tired it is OK to skip some steps of your usual bedtime routine or speed up the routine.

Bedtime routines for newborns should be brief (approximately 10 minutes) and include just a few activities such as changing the baby’s diaper, applying lotion or a soothing massage, swaddling or changing into pajamas, and rocking for a few minutes until drowsy.

Bedtime routines for older babies are usually slightly longer (approximately 15-30 minutes) and may include additional activities such as reading 1-2 books or singing lullaby songs.

When a baby is very upset it is helpful to really lay on the soothing. You can try turning on white noise and begin shushing or singing to your baby. Many babies also settle down faster and will stop crying when rocked or bounced. If your baby takes a pacifier you can also use the pacifier to help your baby stop crying.

If you are breastfeeding you may find bringing your baby to the breast to comfort nurse for a bit puts an end to crying, even if they are not hungry. Nursing is very soothing for babies and the closeness to mom will bring down their heart rate and prepare them for sleep.

Calming a crying baby may take some time, and they may take longer than usual to fall asleep: be patient. If there is more than one caregiver, consider taking turns with the baby. Once your baby has stopped crying, now’s the time to attempt to put your baby to sleep.

Don’t let another sleepless night pass you by

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