Children's Hospital Colorado

Frequent Night Awakenings: Why Is My Baby Crying During Sleep?

A sleeping baby

Hearing your baby cry in the middle of the night can be unsettling. Because they can’t talk, you don’t know for sure why they are crying. But you do know one thing – they're not sleeping, and neither are you.

But the fact is, especially for babies younger than 6 months, it’s very common for babies to cry and wake up during the night. Your baby is unlikely to sleep through the night before they are 4 to 6 months old, so it’s better to plan for it to avoid frustration and take naps when you can. Also, if your baby has slept for a six-hour stretch (lucky you), they may be quite hungry when they wake up.

So once you have the right mindset, what can you do to prepare and help your baby when they cry at night? Maya Bunik, MD, medical director of Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Primary Care Child Health Clinic and breastfeeding expert, provides some advice.

Getting your baby to sleep through the night is a process

One of the most important things to remember is that your baby is learning how to sleep through the night. You might feel a lot of pressure to get your baby to sleep, but it’s important not to be too hard on yourself. It takes time for babies to learn the rhythms of night and day and when to sleep. And remember, being responsive to your baby’s needs is a good thing.

You might have heard that you should “sleep train” your baby or let them “cry it out.” This essentially means that when your baby cries at night, you let them cry while checking on them and they will learn how to soothe themselves back to sleep. There is plenty of debate about whether this method works — and truly little experimental evidence. It can set parents up to feel like they have failed if their baby doesn’t respond to sleep training.

Additionally, many sleep training tactics do not align with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendations for safe infant sleeping.

Ensure your baby is sleeping safely

Following recommendations from the AAP is the most important step you can take. Sure, you would like your baby (and yourself) to sleep as much as possible, but making sure they are safe is the top priority. Among the AAP’s recommendations are:

  • Babies should sleep on their back until they are 1.
  • Babies should sleep on a firm surface, such as a mattress with a fitted sheet, that is free of bedding or other soft objects.
  • Parents and caregivers should avoid exposing babies to any smoke.
  • Caregivers should always avoid alcohol, sedating medications and illicit drug use while caring for an infant.
  • Parents can consider using a pacifier at nighttime or nap time, which has shown a protective effect against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Pacifiers should not attach to clothing or hang around your baby’s neck.

When and how to put your baby to sleep

A lot of people may tell you that you should put your baby down to sleep when they are drowsy, but not fully asleep. This is a good goal, but it is not always possible. Many babies fall asleep while you are holding them, breastfeeding or bottle-feeding them.

You also might hear from advocates of the ‘eat, play, sleep’ bedtime routine, in which babies feed, play for a short amount of time, and then go to sleep. But, this method can lead to unnecessary frustration for parents and dehydration and failure to thrive (falling behind recognized growth standards) in babies.

Share your room with your baby, but not your bed

Have your baby sleep in a portable crib or basinet near your bed. This allows you to be responsive to their needs without sharing your bed — both of which have shown to reduce the risk of SIDS by as much as 50%.

Having your baby close allows you to monitor them throughout the night, assess their cries and feed them with more convenience. The AAP recommends that your child sleep in your room until their first birthday and definitely until they are 6 months old, at which point the risk for SIDS decreases substantially.

Breastfeed in bed

Breastfeeding is associated with a dramatic reduction in the risk of SIDS. If you are breastfeeding, you should do so in your bed and return your baby to their crib or basinet when they are done. Avoid breastfeeding on sofas or armchairs because if you fall asleep in these areas it can be dangerous and increase the risk for SIDS. Despite best intentions, you might fall asleep while nursing your baby, so make sure that you’re in your own bed, and that it has minimal bedding and pillows that pose a suffocation risk for your baby.

The 6-month milestone

When your baby reaches 6 months old, their risk for SIDS decreases significantly and they are more likely to sleep through the night. They also might be more likely to soothe themselves back to sleep after waking up.

This can be a good time to work on a nighttime routine, such as taking a bath, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth (if they have any), cuddling and feeding, reading a book and then going to bed. This may be a good time to try putting your baby in bed while sleepy, but not yet asleep in hopes that they get used to falling asleep alone.

When your baby does wake up in the night or during naps after reaching 6 months, use these tips for comforting them and helping them get back to sleep:

  • Visit your baby as often as you feel is necessary and make your visits loving, but preferably brief.
  • Act sleepy and whisper positive sayings, such as “You’re almost asleep.”
  • Speak in a loving and calm voice.
  • Try not to show any frustration or anger.

Finally, don’t forget that you know your baby best. So trust your instinct and your comfort level. Once you ensure that your baby is sleeping safely, follow these general guidelines, talk with your pediatrician and respond to your baby as you see fit.

When to call your pediatrician

Call your child’s doctor if crying becomes worse, if your child still isn’t sleeping after several weeks of transition or if you ever have any questions or concerns. You can also call Children’s Colorado’s ParentSmart Healthline at 855-543-4636 any time, day or night, to speak with a pediatric nurse.

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