As parents, we’re wired to respond when our babies cry. Our soothing methods vary. We may try breastfeeding, 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?
Below, we’ll look at the unusual sleep patterns of babies. Sleep patterns are a likely culprit if your baby cries while they’re 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.
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.
Your baby 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 and are 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 diaper changing, 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.
Babies can be restless sleepers, especially when they’re newborns. Thanks to those little internal clocks that aren’t fully functioning yet, newborns can sleep somewhere between 16 and 20 hours every day. However, that breaks down into lots of napping.
Experts recommend that newborns breastfeed 8 to 12 times every 24 hours. For some babies that don’t wake often enough on their own at first, this may mean waking them every three to four hours to feed until they’re showing steady weight gain. This will occur 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 three-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 5 to 10 seconds (this is a condition called normal periodic breathing of infancy), before starting again with a rapid burst.
Deep sleep, or non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), is when your baby doesn’t move at all and breathing is deep and regular.
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.
Some parents worry that their babies’ nighttime crying means they’re having a nightmare. It’s a topic without a clear answer.
We don’t know at what exact age nightmares or night terrors may start.
Some babies may begin developing night terrors, which are uncommon, as early as 18 months of age, though they are more likely to happen in older children. This kind of sleep disturbance differs from nightmares, which are common in children starting around age 2 to 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.
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.
Jessica has been a writer and editor for over 10 years. Following the birth of her first son, she left her advertising job to begin freelancing. Today, she writes, edits, and consults for a great group of steady and growing clients as a work-at-home mom of four, squeezing in a side gig as a fitness co-director for a martial arts academy. Between her busy home life and mix of clients from varied industries — like stand-up paddleboarding, energy bars, industrial real estate, and more — Jessica never gets bored.