Panicked because your newborn wakes up screaming from naps and sleep, as if in pain? Learn different reasons this happens, and what to do about it.
I was used to hearing my newborn’s cries after waking up… but screaming? This wasn’t your regular whimpers and tears, but a sudden cry 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 got to the point where he wouldn’t sleep—at least for long—unless someone was holding him. I tried the bassinet, the portable crib, and the swing, but he’d last maaaaaybe 20 minutes before waking up screaming.
As much as I wanted to keep trying different ways to get him to sleep, I also worried he’d overtire with all these frequent wake-ups and short catnaps. Even feeding wasn’t working—he’d go back to fussing and screaming after a nursing session.
Top 5 reasons your newborn wakes up screaming
It’s hard enough for any newborn mom to hear her baby’s cries, but it’s even worse when the cries escalate to screams. We feel defeated, in tears ourselves because we don’t know what to do about these sleep patterns.
Maybe your newborn, who normally takes at least a one-hour nap, now wakes up shortly after you put him down. He’s screaming as if in pain, which he never did before. Despite all that, he’ll happily sleep for hours in your arms—so much so that you’ve resorted to co-sleeping just to get some rest yourself.
As they say, “This too shall pass,” but it sure would help if this would pass as quickly as possible. To finally see that light at the end of the tunnel everyone keeps alluding to.
Rest assured, friend, this behavior is temporary, not a permanent situation. I wondered if I’d ever get my baby to stop waking up screaming. He of course did, and it helped to learn the most common reasons behind those sudden wake-ups, whether after naps or in the middle of the night.
Take a look at the top five reasons your newborn wakes up screaming:
1. Your newborn feels disoriented
I found that my baby fell into a deep sleep when I rocked him in my arms. But since I couldn’t hold him all day or night, I’d gently 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 baby waking up crying could be because he has no idea where he is or how he got there. He woke up somewhere different than when he went to sleep, whether that was the car seat, the swing, and 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 sleep. But as much as possible, try to put him down drowsy but awake in the place you want him to sleep. This way, your baby wakes up exactly where he fell asleep.
He may not get it right every time—you’ll likely still have to resort to the car seat or swing—but at least you gave him an opportunity to try.
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Moms across the board have admitted that a common reason a newborn wakes up screaming could be none other than gas. This is especially true if you notice your baby arching his back while he cries.
You see, his digestive system is still immature, so any gas 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. And while we all know to burp the baby after feeding, sometimes simple burping just doesn’t cut it.
Instead, here are a few ways to help him pass gas:
- Hold him upright for a few minutes after feeding
- Try different burping positions
- Put him down for regular tummy time every day
- “Exercise” with bicycle kicks
- Give him a warm bath
- If bottle-feeding formula, try a new brand
- Make sure he has a good latch when feeding
- Massage his belly gently
Whether your newborn spits up (typical of acid reflux) or not (silent reflux), he might be waking up screaming because of reflux. This is especially true if the screaming seems worse when he’s lying down flat.
Rather than completely digesting in his tummy, the food he has just eaten either comes right back up or is swallowed once again. As you can imagine, neither situation makes for a pleasant or comfortable sleep.
What to do?
Feed him after waking up, not to sleep, so you avoid putting him down with a full belly. And when you do feed, keep him at a slight incline instead of flat on his back.
Take frequent breaks to burp, carry, or switch positions. Feed smaller amounts frequently throughout the day, instead of large amounts a few times. And finally, talk to his pediatrician, as she can possibly prescribe medications to help with the symptoms of reflux.
“Yes, they might have a dirty diaper, or the temperature might be too hot or cold,” our pediatrician began. “But if a baby is upset and crying, more often than not, it’s because he’s hungry.”
Your newborn just might be waking up screaming simply because he’s hungry. As a first-time mom, I struggled with feeding on demand, especially since doing so left me glued to my baby. Because I breastfed, I was the only one who could provide him with food, and I began to resent that responsibility.
Later, I realized my pediatrician was right. Physical discomfort like needing a diaper change or having an itch aren’t usually the reasons babies cry. Instead, it’s likely hunger.
Newborns don’t always know when they’ll go hungry, and given their tiny tummies, they’re understandably hungry most of the time. Other times, they’re hungry because they took a long nap and are ready to replenish after waking up.
My best advice? Feed on demand as much as possible, especially in the first few weeks. Of course, there are exceptions. I kept my twins on schedule as most twin moms do, but only as a way to organize our days. Find a balance between having a schedule and being flexible for feeding on demand.
5. Your newborn wakes up before he’s ready to
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And of course, there’s simply the frustration of waking up before your baby was ready to. You can surely relate: even now, you’re startled awake from your sleep when he cries.
Perhaps he heard a loud noise that cut his nap short, or he woke up mid-sleep cycle and can’t put himself back to sleep. These are all valid reasons he wakes up, frustrated and sleepy that he can’t continue dozing off.
If you find him waking up prematurely with consistency, soothe him back to sleep before he wakes up hysterical. Maybe you’ll pick him up and gently pat his back. You can swaddle (or re-swaddle tighter), or “tug” at his pacifier to encourage more sucking.
And prevent him from waking up in the first place by keeping the room dark and using a white noise machine or a fan. Darkening curtains and white noise have helped my babies extend their naps far longer than had they slept without them.
It’s easy to feel panicked and frustrated when your newborn wakes up screaming — thankfully, now you know why these sleep problems happen, as well as what you can do about it.
For instance, he likely has gas, which explains the sudden screaming and discomfort he might be feeling. He might also have reflux, either spitting up food he just ate or re-swallowing it to make for an uncomfortable experience.
Perhaps he’s hungry, especially if he has gone a long stretch since his last feed. He may have woken up disoriented, having fallen asleep in a different place than when he woke up. And finally, he could simply not be ready to wake up just yet and is frustrated from his sleep getting cut short.
As they say, “This too shall pass,” and however distant that light at the end of the tunnel may be, know that it’ll shine soon enough.
Get more tips:
- 12 Things to Do When Your Newborn Fights Sleep
- What to Do When Your 3 Month Old Won’t Nap
- Baby Only Wants Mom? These 6 Tips Can Solve It!
- How to Create a Newborn Schedule
- Newborn Life: Expectation vs Reality
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