Worried because your baby wakes up crying hysterically all of a sudden? Take a look at 5 common reasons why, and more important, what to do about it.
Is this normal? you wonder.
Your baby is several months old by this point, but just in the last few days, she’s been suddenly waking up crying. About once or twice a night, she flails her legs and screams her lungs out. Rocking and feeding seem to work a few times, but you’re afraid she’ll rely on these habits too much.
It’s breaking your heart, this inability to console her when she needs it the most.
I’ve wondered the same myself when my baby would wake up crying hysterically. I went through the list of possibilities—Is this just his personality? Is he not well-rested?—before worrying I was doing something wrong.
It’s especially jarring when all had been humming along just fine to suddenly hear these unexpected cries. I was desperate for any way to help him sleep well through the night without waking up and screaming uncontrollably.
5 reasons your baby wakes up crying hysterically
No clear-cut path or one-size-fits-all method will solve these issues, as we all understand. Each baby is different, even if they’re born the same day to the same parents (trust me, I know!).
Finding solutions then becomes an experiment, one where we test theories and see if a technique works. Other times, it’s a waiting game, where all we can do is our best until this stage passes.
As always, the best place to start is with your baby’s pediatrician. She’ll be able to provide professional advice tailored to what she knows about your little one. Any time I had even the slightest reason to worry, I turned to our pediatrician for guidance.
In the meantime, learn why your baby wakes up crying hysterically—whether at night or from naps—and what you can do about it:
1. Sleep cycles
We all wake up throughout the night, babies and adults alike. During these cycles, we enter a light state of rest, but can usually fall right back to sleep.
But babies who haven’t learned to fall asleep on their own struggle to do so. As effective as sleep aids can be to help your baby fall asleep, many of them rely on you. Sleep aids like feeding, rocking, co-sleeping, or holding means she isn’t able to fall asleep on her own.
What to do: Rely less on sleep aids to help her fall asleep, and instead encourage her to self-soothe. If your baby wakes up crying hysterically in the middle of the night, she’ll know how to put herself back to sleep.
Learning to fall asleep on her own will help her feel more rested, day or night, which only leads to better quality sleep.
Free resource: Discover the 5 mistakes that are keeping your baby from self-soothing!
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2. Separation anxiety
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One of the healthiest milestones your baby will reach is separation anxiety. As challenging as it is to deal with, separation anxiety is a sign she’s developing a sense of herself that’s separate from you. (Previously, she had thought that everything was one and the same.)
But the idea that she’s separate from you—and that you can leave—can feel frightening.
And as anyone knows, waking up in the middle of the night can feel disorienting. In the past, she may have been able to put herself back to sleep just fine, but now she’s feeling anxious about not having you there… all while the room is dark, no less.
What to do: Play games that promote object permanence. She’ll learn that just because she can’t see something or someone, that doesn’t mean they’re not there. The most popular game? Peek-a-boo, of course.
You can also install a night light (this one is a popular one among parents) or pull the curtains back a bit. That way, the room isn’t completely dark when she stirs at night.
3. New milestones
Sitting up, crawling, walking… all these exciting new milestones can take a toll on your baby’s sleep at night. For instance, learning how to pull himself up in the crib can leave her miserable because she doesn’t know how to sit back down.
But other times, new milestones are wiring in her brain at an amazing rate, making sleep that much less restful. Think of the times you’ve slept after an exciting day—falling asleep may have been extra fitful for you.
The same is true for your baby: all the exciting new lessons she’s learning are either playing through her mind, or compelling her to practice in the middle of the night.
What to do: Sometimes we need to wait out these milestones until they pass. For instance, your baby might cry as she finds herself finally pulling herself up on her crib… but unable to get herself back down.
Each time she wakes up, you’ll simply need to help her back down, knowing this will soon pass as she learns to do this on her own.
4. Discomfort from sickness or infection
Babies go through some rough times, from emerging new teeth to possible infections. And unfortunately, they can’t come right out and let us know exactly what’s bothering them, so it’s up to us to look for signs of these issues.
Common discomforts for babies this age are teething and infections. They’re both easy to miss, and can disrupt even the most rested baby. Other times, your baby might simply come down with a cold or cough, making it that much more difficult to, say, breathe through her nose.
What to do: When I suspected my babies were teething, their pediatrician recommended I offer pain medicine an hour before bedtime. This allowed them to sleep a little better without the pain. I offered the medicine again in the middle of the night if enough hours had passed from the first dosage.
For common colds, you might use a nose suction to help clear her passages. And if her discomfort persists, take her to the pediatrician to see if she has an ear infection or other complications. These can be difficult to sleep through and are uncomfortable enough to disrupt even the deepest sleep.
Your baby may have passed the newborn stage and settled into a pattern of eating, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t waking up from hunger. As she grows, her needs might change and fluctuate. One day, she refuses to drink milk, while the next, can’t seem to get enough.
If she happens to need more milk but didn’t drink enough during the day, she just might wake up in the middle of the night from hunger.
What to do: If you’ve recently weaned her from night feedings, don’t forget to supplement her milk intake during the day. Or perhaps you’ve introduced solids and figured she won’t need as much milk. Instead, see if offering the same amount of milk can help her sleep better at night.
Afraid she’ll rely on feeding to fall asleep? As I say in my book, How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe:
“Feeding to sleep sets up a habit your baby has understandably grown accustomed to: that he needs to eat in order to fall asleep. Never mind that he may not even be hungry, or that he falls asleep mid-feed, or that he could easily consume all his calories during the day.”
Make sure she doesn’t fall asleep while you’re feeding her (hard, I know, especially in the middle of the night). She should still be awake when you put her down, so she can still learn to put herself to sleep on her own.
Not knowing what to do when your baby wakes up crying hysterically is enough to make any mom feel overwhelmed. And yes, sometimes all you can do is simply be there for her through her discomfort.
But you can still pinpoint reasons why she wakes up crying. Perhaps she’s developing separation anxiety and doesn’t like the feeling of being apart from you. Other times, different milestones, however normal and even exciting to reach, can disrupt her sleep.
Ailments like teething and ear infections are also common culprits, as is waking up out of hunger. And lastly, her inability to soothe herself back to sleep can be the very thing causing her to cry in her sleep.
Whether you can pinpoint the actual cause or simply need to wait for this phase to pass, rest assured that you’re doing a good job. Even if your baby wakes up crying hysterically in the middle of the night.
Get more tips:
- What to Do When Your Baby Wakes Up Crying from Naps
- Adjust These 3 Factors to Stop Your Baby Waking Early
- Baby Wakes Up Every Hour? Must-Know Tips for Parents
- How to Get a Teething Baby to Sleep
- What Having a “Spoiled Baby” Really Means
How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe
Struggling to get your baby to sleep through the night? My guide, How to Teach Your Baby to Self Soothe, has given thousands of parents the sleep they need. Like a fellow mom said about the guide:
“I really enjoyed reading your Self Soothe e-book and started working on the steps last week with my 8 month old son. He was waking 2-3 times a night and wanted me to help him back to sleep (rocking) or give him his pacifier back each time. We took away the pacifier and allowed him to try self soothing and I couldn’t believe that after a few nights he started sleeping 7:00pm-5:30am (wake for a feed) and then back to sleep until 7:20am without any sleep crutches/aids! Your simple steps and reassuring words really helped, so thank you so much!” -Emily Armstrong
Stop the sleep-deprivation and grab your copy below—a few days or weeks from now, you’re going to look back and be so glad you did.