What to do when your newborn baby wakes up screaming and won’t stop crying? Learn the steps to take when your overtired baby keeps waking up.
I started to dread the nights. As a first-time mom, I could hang with feeling sleep-deprived during the day—this is the time to be awake, after all. But once the skies darkened and signaled bedtime, the pressure was on to put (and keep) my baby to sleep.
Except that wasn’t exactly happening. Instead, putting him to sleep became an hour-long process where he cried and cried. He fought sleep, despite being barely able to keep his eyes open. Naps were just as bad, when each time I laid him down in the crib, he’d wake up crying either immediately or within five minutes.
I felt like I was picking him up and putting him down 20 times a day. And of course, he’d “catnap” each time, barely asleep long enough before I had to rock him once more. Sometimes, he’d even cry uncontrollably, even though I’d go in and pick him up right away.
I knew he was tired, and yet he continued to resist sleeping in long stretches the way I wanted him to.
What to do when your overtired baby keeps waking up
So, what do you do when your baby wakes up 45 minutes after being put down for bedtime, or when he wakes up several times at night to burp? When he opens his eyes as soon as you put him down, never mind that it took two hours just to get him to sleep?
As a first-time mom, I hadn’t realized the frustrating consequences of having an overtired baby. In fact, I figured babies sleep when they’re tired, no matter the circumstances. I also hadn’t yet learned the sleep cycles that would predictably wake them up every 30-45 minutes, or that they needed help falling asleep.
Instead, I’d rock my baby to sleep, sometimes for over an hour, and play the “put down” game throughout the day. I got nothing done, and even resented my baby—and motherhood in general—for feeling stuck putting him to sleep.
Why your baby is fighting sleep
But first, why do babies fight sleep, especially when they’re clearly overtired?
Put simply, he’s too exhausted to fall asleep. Have you ever had a long, tiring day, only to find that you’re tossing and turning come nighttime, unable to sleep? Our bodies are too wired to fall asleep, despite clearly needing it.
The same is true for your baby. He’s past the window of falling asleep for that particular nap and has a difficult time relaxing and resting.
I don’t want you to have to rock your baby to sleep for an hour, only for him to wake up 30 minutes later. Or to feel anxious, with an ear cocked and ready to listen for the slightest whimper lest he cry so much he can’t fall back asleep.
I’ve learned that there are ways to prevent your baby from feeling overtired, and to get him to actually sleep long stretches (or at least longer than he is now). Take a look at what worked for me, and hopefully it can help you as well:
1. Have an early bedtime
Before having kids, I could fall asleep around midnight, have dinner out on a random Thursday night, and wake up “early” at 8am. So you can imagine how adjusting to motherhood often meant sacrificing my idea of a decent hour to sleep.
And when you have an overtired baby, one of the best places to start with is his bedtime. Particularly, having an early bedtime.
You see, keeping your baby up late doesn’t make him sleep better or longer—in fact, the opposite is often true. The better quality of sleep he gets, including sleeping at a decent hour, the more chances he’ll have of sleeping in longer stretches.
I recommend a bedtime of no later than 8:30pm, though you can start as early as 6:30pm or 7pm.
2. Find the right balance of wake time
Put your baby to sleep too often and he simply may not be tired enough to actually drift off. But keep him up too long, and he’ll be too overtired to rest well.
Instead, find the right balance of wake time: one where he has enough time to play and be alert. Observe typical sleep cues that signal it’s time for another nap. Or you can just watch the clock to make sure he’s had enough wake time.
The younger the baby, the shorter his window needs to be awake. Over the months, he’ll extend his wake time into longer stretches. But for now, err on the side of shorter windows during the newborn stage.
Want a simple guide based on your baby’s age to let you know just how long he should be awake? Join my newsletter and download a free chapter of my ebook, How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held. You’ll learn exactly how long he can be awake and when to put him down for a nap:
3. Give your baby a chance to settle down
During the newborn stage, babies often need our help to fall asleep. Still, that doesn’t mean we need to rescue them from every little discomfort. In fact, by giving your baby a few minutes to settle down, you’re providing him the opportunity to learn to fall asleep on his own.
How can you tell whether to give him a few minutes or to come in? Observe his mood. If he sounds like he’s whimpering or complaining, don’t go into the room just yet. Instead, see if he’ll eventually settle down.
And just because he opens his eyes as soon as you set him down, doesn’t mean you need to pick him up right away. In fact, I learned my lesson with my twins and didn’t pick them up. Within a few minutes, they were fast asleep.
4. Put your baby down completely asleep
Let’s say you tried giving your baby a chance to fall asleep on his own, but he keeps waking up screaming and crying. One tactic is to do exactly the opposite: hold him until he’s completely asleep before putting him down.
An easy way to check? If his arms aren’t swaddled, hold one of them in the air and let it drop. If he stirs from the movement, then he’s not in deep sleep yet. But if his arms flops down, then it’s a safe bet that he’s completely knocked out.
And make the transition smooth by shortening the gap between your arms and the crib. For instance, give him a pacifier right after feeding so he’s still sucking as he drifts off to sleep, or place your hand on his chest as you put him down. This will help him fall and stay asleep between moving him from your arms and into the crib.
5. Rely on effective baby gear
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You’re in the thick of the newborn stage, which means you get a pass on a lot of things. Yes, you should encourage your baby to sleep drowsy but awake, but when all else fails, having the right baby gear is a lifesaver.
A few of my favorites include:
- Swaddle: The snugness of a swaddle offers the same tight feeling your baby was accustomed to in your womb. I’m a fan of the “pre-made” swaddles that you can zip or Velcro easily.
- Swing: My baby would take long naps in the swing, and I’d have my arms free to tend to other tasks.
- Baby wrap: This is a fantastic way to help your overtired baby stay asleep. I could keep my babies sleeping longer simply by moving about or patting them while they slept in the baby wrap.
- White noise: Sudden noises can startle your baby out of sleep when everything else is silent. Use white noise to muffle sounds and extend his sleep.
6. Do the same things in the same order
Your newborn won’t follow any rigid schedules, but it’s still never too early to add some rhythm and flow to your days.
For instance, offer milk right after waking up, followed by a change of diaper and play time, before starting another nap. Or follow the same sequence of bath, massage, reading books, and swaddling before bedtime.
Your baby may not be able to tell time or fall asleep at exact times of the day. But having a routine allows him to begin to know what to expect and feel reassured with your routine’s predictability. If anything, you’re also able to function a little more on autopilot instead of scrambling about what to do next.
7. Stay calm
My baby was eight weeks old, too young to be anywhere near “easy,” but old enough for me to wonder if this parenting thing would ever cut me some slack.
I had been rocking him to sleep, trying unsuccessfully to get him to nap. Not only was he not falling asleep, but he cried the entire time. We were both miserable, and I could feel my frustration growing as I yelled, “Why won’t you just go to sleep?!”
Of course, that did little to calm him down. Instead, he let out a series of frantic cries I had never heard before. Remorse quickly took over and I held him close, feeling guilty for having resorted to these antics when he needed more than that.
You see, the more anxious and aggravated we get, the more those stressful emotions affect our babies. In fact, one of the best things—perhaps even the first thing—you should do is to simply stay calm. This allows you to make choices from a place of clarity, rather than anger or resentment.
And the best part? Your baby will pick up on your mood and will be more likely to calm down as well. Perhaps even just calm enough to help him fall back to sleep.
Helping your baby fall asleep—overtired, at that—can be a challenge for any first-time mom. Still, you’re not stuck with frequent wake-ups or miserable days and nights. Start by having an earlier bedtime, especially since good, quality sleep begets more of it.
Then, find the right balance of wake and sleep time. You want your baby to be awake long enough that he’s actually sleepy, but not too awake that he crosses into feeling overtired. Don’t rush in the minute you hear any whimper, and instead give him a chance to settle back on his own.
If that doesn’t work, hold him until he’s completely asleep before putting him down. You can also rely on effective baby gear that help him sleep in longer stretches while giving you a break. Encourage consistency in your days by doing the same order of routines.
And finally, focus more on staying calm than getting your baby to sleep. The calmer you are, the more likely he’ll be to actually fall asleep.
I’m happy to say that it wasn’t long before I stopped dreading the nights. A few effective tips, from the practical actions to mindset shifts, were all it took to get my overtired baby to sleep through them.
Get more tips:
- How to Get Your Baby to Nap in the Crib
- Watch Out for These 7 Baby Tired Signs You Might Be Missing
- 5 Ideas to Try When Your Baby Only Takes Catnaps (They Really Work!)
- How to Get Your Baby to Adjust Using a Newborn Schedule
- 7 Secrets to Get an Overtired Baby to Finally Sleep
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