How to Soothe a Baby Who's Crying in Their Sleep

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD, FAAP on March 3, 2016Written by Jessica Timmons on March 3, 2016
Baby Crying in Sleep

As parents, we’re wired to respond when our babies cry. Our soothing methods vary, but we may try breast-feeding, skin-to-skin contact, soothing sounds, or gentle movement to calm a baby who’s upset.

But what happens when your baby suddenly screams or cries in distress in the middle of the night, but is still asleep? Can babies have nightmares? And how can you soothe a baby who cries without even waking up? 

First, let’s take a look at the unusual sleep patterns of babies — it’s a likely culprit if your baby cries while he’s still asleep. Having a better idea of the cause behind these nighttime disruptions makes it easier to figure out the best way to handle them.

Infant Sleep Patterns

Whoever coined the term “sleeping like a baby” probably didn’t spend much time around infants.

Babies can be restless sleepers, especially when they’re new. Thanks to those little internal clocks that aren’t fully functioning just yet, newborns can sleep somewhere between 16 and 20 hours every day, but that breaks down into lots of napping.

Experts recommend waking newborn babies every three to four hours until they’re showing steady weight gain, which is sometime in the first few weeks. After that, new babies may sleep for four or five hours at a time. This will likely continue until around the 3-month mark, when babies usually start sleeping for eight to nine hours at night, along with a handful of naps during the day. But that nighttime stretch may have a few interruptions.

Babies, especially newborns, spend about half of their sleeping hours in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. REM sleep is also known as active sleep, and it’s characterized by a few common traits:

  • Your baby’s arms and legs may jerk or twitch.
  • Your baby’s eyes may move side to side beneath their closed eyelids.
  • Your baby’s breathing may seem irregular and may stop completely for five to 10 seconds (this is a condition called normal periodic breathing of infancy), before starting again with a rapid burst.

Deep sleep, or nonREM sleep, is when your baby doesn’t move at all and breathing is deep and regular.

While adult sleep cycles — the transition from light to deep sleep and back again — last about 90 minutes, a baby’s sleep cycle is much shorter, at 50 to 60 minutes. That means there are more opportunities for your baby to make those nighttime noises, including crying, without even waking up.

How Do I Soothe My Baby While They’re Still Sleeping?

While your natural response to your baby’s cry may be to wake them up for a cuddle, it’s best to wait and watch.

Just because your baby is making noises isn’t necessarily a sign that they’re ready to wake up. Your baby may fuss momentarily during the transition from light to deep sleep before settling again. Don’t rush to scoop up your baby just because they cry out in the night.

Pay attention to the sound of their cry. A baby who’s crying in the night because they’re wet, hungry, cold, or even sick won’t fall back asleep in a minute or two. Those cries will escalate quickly. This is your cue to respond. In these cases, try to keep the awakenings quiet and calm. Do what needs to be done, whether it’s a feeding or a fresh diaper, without unnecessary stimulation like bright lights or a loud voice. The idea is to make it clear that nighttime is for sleeping.

Remember, a baby making noise as they move through the stages of sleep will seem to be in a semiconscious state. It can be hard to tell if they’re awake or asleep. Again, waiting and watching is the best course of action. You don’t need to soothe a baby crying while asleep the same way you would when they’re awake.

Is My Baby Having a Nightmare?

Some parents worry that their babies’ nighttime crying means they’re having a nightmare. It’s a topic without a clear answer, though some babies may begin developing night terrors around 8 to 12 months of age. This kind of sleep disturbance differs from nightmares, which tend to start later, around age 3 or 4.

Night terrors take place during the deep sleep phase. Your baby may begin crying or even screaming suddenly if for some reason this stage is disrupted. It’s likely more disturbing for you. Your baby doesn’t know they’re making such a commotion, and it’s not something they’ll remember in the morning. The best thing you can do is just make sure your baby is safe.

When Should I Call a Doctor?

There may be other reasons that your baby is crying while sleeping. If it seems to be affecting your baby’s daytime routine, consult your doctor. It may be possible that something like teething or an illness is part of the problem.

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