Top 5 Reasons Your Newborn Wakes Up Screaming

Does every nap your baby takes end with piercing cries? There are several reasons why a newborn wakes up screaming. In this article, we’ll discuss 5 reasons your little one may not be waking up calmly as well as some suggestions for turning things around.

Newborn Wakes Up Screaming

I was used to hearing my newborn’s cries after waking up… but screaming? This wasn’t your regular whimpers and tears, but sudden cries that caught me off guard and sent me into a panic. But of course, the minute I picked him up, he immediately calmed down and fell back asleep.

It’s hard enough for any parent to hear her baby’s cries, but it’s even worse when the cries escalate to screams. As they say, “This too shall pass,” but it sure would help if this would pass as quickly as possible so you can see the light at the end of the tunnel already.

Rest assured, friend, this behavior is temporary, not a permanent situation. It helps to learn the most common reasons behind these sudden wake-ups, whether after naps or in the middle of the night, to turn things around. Take a look at the top five reasons right here:

1. Your newborn is disoriented

Tired that my newborn wouldn’t sleep in a bassinet, I ended up rocking him in my arms. But since I couldn’t hold him all day or night, I’d try to ease him from my arms and onto another sleeping arrangement. The problem? He’d wake up not too long after I had just put him down, disoriented at where he now found himself.

You see, your newborn wakes up screaming because he has no idea where he is or how he got there. He woke up somewhere different than where he went to sleep, whether that was the carseat, the swing, or yes, your arms.

And I get it: sometimes these measures—rocking him to sleep, driving him around in the van—are the only ways to get him to snooze. But as much as possible, try to put him down drowsy but awake in the place you want him to sleep.

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How to Get Your Baby to Sleep without Being Held

2. Your newborn has gas

Another reason your newborn wakes up screaming could be none other than gas. You see, his digestive system is still immature, so any air that’s trapped in his body can feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that he’s lying down and unable to pass gas on his own.

To help him pass gas:

  • Hold him upright for a few minutes after feeding
  • Try different baby burping tricks
  • Put him down for regular tummy time every day
  • “Exercise” with bicycle kicks
  • Give him a warm bath
  • If you use formula, try a new brand
  • Make sure he has a good latch
  • Massage his belly gently
14 Baby Burping Tricks

3. Your newborn has reflux

Reflux happens when food, rather than completely digesting in your baby’s tummy, moves back up the esophagus. It comes out as spit-up or is swallowed once again. This is yet another reason that can startle him awake, especially if he seems worse when he’s lying down. 

As you can imagine, this situation doesn’t make for a pleasant or comfortable sleep. This can also explain why he won’t nap unless held—it simply doesn’t feel good to be lying flat on his back.

What to do?

Feed him after waking up, not to sleep, so you avoid putting him down with a full belly. Keep him at a slight incline instead of flat on his back, and take frequent breaks to burp, carry, or switch positions.

You can also feed smaller amounts frequently throughout the day, instead of large amounts a few times. And finally, talk to his pediatrician, as she can give medications to help with reflux.

Baby Won't Nap Unless Held

4. Your newborn is hungry

Yes, babies might have a dirty diaper or the temperature might be too hot or cold, but if your baby is waking up screaming, more often than not, it’s simply because he’s hungry.

As a first-time mom, I struggled when my newborn was constantly hungry and crying. Because I breastfed, I was the only one who could provide him with food, and I began to resent that responsibility.

Later, I realized that feeding on demand was a temporary and necessary season. For one thing, babies don’t eat on a schedule and won’t exactly know when they’ll feel hungry again. Given their tiny tummies, this happens more often than not. And other times, a long nap means they’re ready to eat after waking up.

Feed on demand as much as possible, especially in the first few weeks. Find a balance between having a schedule and being flexible with meeting your baby’s needs.

Newborn Constantly Hungry

5. Your newborn wakes up before he’s ready to

Does your overtired baby keep waking up screaming? The reason could be simply that he needed more sleep.

Perhaps he heard a loud noise that cut his nap short or woke up mid-cycle and couldn’t put himself back to sleep. These are all valid reasons he wakes up frustrated that he can’t continue dozing off.

If you catch him starting to stir prematurely, see if you can get him to sleep for another cycle before he completely wakes up. For instance, try patting his back, rocking the bassinet, or giving his pacifier a gentle tug to encourage more sucking.

And prevent him from waking up in the first place by hanging darkening curtains and using a white noise machine. The darkness of the room helps block light that might peek in and wake him up, while white noise muffles sudden sounds that can startle him awake. Both can help extend his sleep far longer than if he sleeps without them.

The bottom line

It’s easy to feel frustrated when your newborn wakes up screaming. Thankfully, now you know why this happens, as well as what you can do about it. As they say, “This too shall pass.” However distant that light at the end of the tunnel may be, know that it’ll shine soon enough.

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How to Get Your Baby to Sleep without Being Held

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  1. My 2 month old daughter HAS to have me hold and rock her when she takes naps and for bedtime. Trying to get anything done around the house no longer happens and I don’t even get to eat that much. Honestly it’s been such a struggle for me.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I hear you, Kira!

      At two months, it’s long enough to have lost the willpower that was there in the earlier stages, but still not long enough that our babies are more independent. They’re still so dependent on us to fall asleep, though at least there are ways to ingrain a few habits to at least put them drowsy but awake. That way they have the chance to “practice” falling asleep until they’re old enough to formally sleep train.