Panicked because your newborn wakes up screaming and crying suddenly from naps and sleep, as if in pain? Learn the top 5 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 in 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, the swing… 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 naps. Even feeding wasn’t working—he’d go back to fussing and screaming after a feeding 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.
Maybe your newborn, who normally takes at least a one-hour nap, now wakes up shortly after you put her down. She’s screaming, as if in pain, which she never did before. Despite all that, she’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, it truly 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 reasons behind those sudden wake-ups.
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 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 newborn could very well be waking up screaming because she has no idea where she is or how she got there. She woke up somewhere different than when she went to sleep, whether that was the car seat, the swing, and yes, your arms.
And I get it: sometimes these measures—rocking them to sleep, driving them around in the van—are the only ways to get her to sleep. But as much as possible, do at least try to put her down drowsy but awake in the place you want her to sleep. This way, she wakes up exactly where she fell asleep.
She 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 her an opportunity to try.
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Moms across the board have admitted that the number one reason their newborn wakes up screaming is none other than gas. This is especially true if you notice your baby arching her back while she cries.
You see, her digestive system is still immature, so any gas that’s trapped in her body can feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t help that she’s lying down and unable to pass gas on her 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 your baby pass gas:
- Hold your newborn upright for a few minutes after feeding
- Try different burping positions
- Put her down for regular tummy time every day
- “Exercise” with bicycle kicks
- Give her a warm bath
- Try a new brand of formula
- Make sure she has a good latch when feeding
- Massage her belly gently
Whether your newborn spits up (typical of acid reflux) or not (silent reflux), she might be waking up screaming because of reflux. This is especially true if the screaming seems worse when she’s lying down flat.
Rather than completely digesting in her tummy, the food she 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 your baby after waking up, not to sleep, so you avoid putting her down with a fully belly. And when you do feed her, keep her at a slight incline instead of flat on her 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 her pediatrician, as she can possibly prescribe medicine to help with 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 crying, more often than not, it’s because he’s hungry.”
Your newborn just might be waking up screaming simply because she’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. 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. Yes, I kept my twins on schedule as most twin moms do, but only as a way to streamline our days as much as possible. Find a balance between having a schedule and being flexible for feeding on demand.
5. Your newborn wakes up before she’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 she cries.
Perhaps she heard a loud noise that cut her nap short, or she woke up mid-sleep cycle and can’t put herself back to sleep. These are all valid reasons she wakes up, frustrated and sleepy that she can’t continue dozing off.
If you find her waking up prematurely, soothe her back to sleep before she wakes up hysterical. Maybe you’ll pick her up and gently pat her back. Perhaps you’ll swaddle (or re-swaddle her tighter), or “tug” at her pacifier to encourage more sucking.
And prevent her from waking up in the first place by keeping the room dark and using a white noise machine. 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 panic, and perhaps frustration, when your newborn wakes up screaming—thankfully, now you know why, as well as what you can do about it.
For instance, she likely has gas, which explains the sudden screaming and discomfort she might be feeling. She might also have reflux, either spitting up food she just ate, or re-swallowing it to make for an uncomfortable experience.
Perhaps she’s simply hungry, especially if she has gone a long stretch since her last feed. She may have woken up disoriented, having fallen asleep in a different place than when she woke up. And finally, she could simply not be ready to wake up just yet, and is frustrated from her 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 Keeps Fighting Sleep
- What to Do When Your 3 Month Old Won’t Nap
- Baby Only Wants Mom? These 6 Tips Will Solve It!
- How to Get Your Baby to Adjust Using a Newborn Schedule
- Newborn Life: Expectation vs Reality
Remember, you can join my newsletter and download a free chapter of my ebook, How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held. You’ll learn effective tips and strategies to finally ease her out of your arms: