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 not getting much sleep 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 unable 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 take a short nap 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.
Why your baby is fighting sleep
But first, why do newborns fight sleep, especially when they’re clearly overtired?
Put simply, they’re 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 needing it.
The same is true for your baby. He’s past the window of falling asleep for that particular nap time and can’t relax or rest.
Learn how to stop your 6 week old fighting sleep.
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 started to resent him—and motherhood in general—for feeling stuck in exhausting sleep patterns.
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 him 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 these tips can help you as well. I hope you find the tips useful, as one parent said:
“Thank you very much Nina. I am a new mom and I had absolutely no clue about the overtired cycle and how to break it. My baby, who was previously sleeping decently, hasn’t slept well for 3 days. I knew that he was overtired but I had no clue on what to do. Really grateful for all the tips. Thank you.” -Luanne Matthew
1. 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 awake 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 watch the clock to make sure he’s had enough wake time.
The younger the baby, the shorter his wake window. 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.
Free resource: Want a simple guide based on his age to let you know just how long he should be awake? Join my newsletter and grab 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:
2. 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 him 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’ve heard that bedtime should be no later than 8:30pm, though you can start as early as 6:30pm or 7pm.
Learn how to get an overtired newborn to sleep.
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 his fussiness sounds like he’s whimpering or complaining, don’t go into the room yet. Instead, see if he’ll eventually settle down.
And just because he opens his eyes as soon as you set him down, that 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 if they weren’t crying. Within a few minutes, they were often fast asleep.
Get more tips on how to break the cycle of an overtired baby.
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 without waking him, 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.
What to do when your newborn wakes up screaming.
5. Rely on effective baby gear
Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, which means I will earn a commission—at no extra cost to you—if you make a purchase.
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: Frustrated with frequent night waking? Keep your baby relaxed and snug with a swaddle, offering the same tight feeling he was accustomed to in your womb. I’m a fan of the “pre-made” swaddles that you can zip or attach 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 stimulation. Tip: Combine the white noise with a dark room to extend his sleep even more.
Learn what to do when your baby won’t nap unless held.
6. Do the same things in the same order
Your newborn won’t follow a rigid sleep schedule, but it’s never too early to follow a 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.
He may not be able to tell time or sleep at exact times of the day, but having a bedtime routine allows him to know what to expect next. If anything, you’re also able to function a little more on autopilot instead of scrambling about what to do next.
As I say in my book, How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held:
“Routines will give your baby the predictability to know when events happen in his day—including when and where to sleep—and provide cues that signal what to expect next.”
Get more tips on creating a newborn schedule.
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 in the first place, 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—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 calm enough to help her fall back to sleep.
Learn 5 things you can do when your newborn wants to be held all night.
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 nighttime sleep. 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 him 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 the daytime by doing the same activities in your sleep routine.
And finally, focus more on staying calm than getting him 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. Healthy sleep habits, 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 with Your Catnapping Baby (They Really Work!)
- 7 Secrets to Get an Overtired Baby to Finally Sleep
- How to Survive the 3 Month Old Sleep Regression
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab a free chapter of my ebook, How to Get Your Baby to Sleep Without Being Held:
Luanne Mathew says
Thank you very much Nina. I am a new mom and I had absolutely no clue about the overtired cycle and how to break it. My baby, who was previously sleeping decently, hasn’t slept well for 3 days. I knew that he was overtired but I had no clue on what to do. Really grateful for all the tips. Thank you.