Baby crying in sleep: What’s normal and how to soothe them
For many caregivers, sleep-related issues are among the biggest challenges during the baby and toddler years. Sleep problems are common, affecting at least 30 percent of children.
In this article, we look at the reasons why a baby might cry in their sleep, how to soothe them, and the normal sleep cycles that people can expect at different ages.
Why do babies cry in their sleep?
Newborns and young babies may grunt, cry, or scream in their sleep.
Very young children’s bodies have not yet mastered the challenges of a regular sleep cycle, so it is common for them to wake frequently or make strange sounds in their sleep.
For very young babies, crying is their main form of communication. It makes sense, then, that babies cry often and might also cry in their sleep.
As long as a baby does not have additional concerning symptoms, such as other signs of illness or pain, this is developmentally normal, and not a sign that something is wrong.
As babies develop more ways to express themselves, crying while asleep may be a sign that they are having a nightmare or night terror. Toddlers and older babies who cry while asleep, especially while moving in bed or making other sounds, may be having night terrors.
Nightmares occur during light sleep, or random eye movement sleep. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur when a child becomes very agitated during the deeper phases of sleep. Children are more likely to cry from night terrors early in the night.
Night terrors are relatively rare and usually occur in children aged between 4 and 12 years old, though people have reported possible night terrors in babies as young as 18 months old. Night terrors may be more likely to occur if a child is sick or sleep-deprived.
Caregivers should talk to a doctor about nighttime crying and other sleep issues when:
- a child cries out in pain
- a child’s sleep habits suddenly change
- a child’s sleep problems last for several nights and interfere with the ability of the child or caregiver to function
- feeding difficulties, such as a bad latch, not getting enough breast milk, or concerns with a formula sensitivity, interfere with sleep
Between 3 and 7 months, some babies begin sleeping longer stretches or sleeping through the night. There is still considerable variation between babies.
Some babies also experience a sleep regression around 4 months that changes their sleep pattern.
Later in this period, many babies develop a sleep schedule of two daily naps and a longer period of sleep at night. Establishing a daily routine and a nighttime sleep routine can help.
Infants (7–12 months)
Most babies will sleep through the night by the time they are 9 months old. At around a year old, some babies drop down to just one nap per day. Others may need two naps per day well into their second year of life.
Toddlers (12 months and older)
Toddlers need 12–14 hours of sleep per day, divided between their nap and nighttime sleep. Most drop down to a single daily nap by 18 months of age.
Toddlers may experience occasional shifts in their sleep habits when something disrupts their routine, they are sick, or they go through a major developmental shift. This may include more crying than usual.
A child who routinely sleeps through the night, for example, may wake at 3 a.m. ready to play for a few nights.
Sleep can be challenging, especially in the early months and years. Every baby is unique and has their own set of needs and tendencies.
Caregivers can find ways to work with a baby’s temperament to maximize sleep, soothe crying, and ensure that the baby feels safe and comfortable at night.
In most cases, crying out in sleep is not dangerous or a sign of a serious problem. Sooner or later, almost all babies do it, and eventually, all babies sleep.
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