Why Is the Baby Crying at Night? Find Out Here

Key Points

  • Babies' sleep patterns are different from those of adults, so waking up and crying at night is common.

  • Possible reasons for a baby crying at night are overstimulation, bad dreams, physical changes, loneliness, and hunger.

  • Making sure your baby is comfortable, fed, and swaddled can help prevent nighttime crying.

  • If your baby excessively cries at night, check with your doctor for common medical conditions.

When you were expecting your child, other parents no doubt warned you that you were in for some sleep deprivation. The experience of a baby crying at night for seemingly no reason is familiar to all parents, but you might be wondering when it's cause for worry. Maybe your baby seems to be crying more than those of your friends, or your second child is crying a lot more than the first. What does it mean?

A lot is going on in a child's first year of life, so there are many possible answers to why your baby is crying at night. Read on to learn more about how children's sleep cycles develop, what might make them cry at night, and what to do about it.

A Baby's Sleep Pattern (Or Lack of It)

In his memoir How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, astronomer Mike Brown describes his discovery of new bodies in the outer solar system, how it led to the demotion of Pluto from the status of "major planet," and the ensuing controversy. Coincidentally, all this happened at the same time as the birth of his first child, which Brown found even more fascinating. Being a scientist, he wrote a computer program to track the baby's sleeping and waking patterns. The program's conclusion: there was no pattern. The movements of the planets are more comprehensible than a baby's sleep!

Despite the lack of any mathematical patterns, researchers do see an overall pattern in how children's sleep develops over time. Elsewhere, Snooze has detailed the stages of sleep that adults normally go through six or eight times a night. In short, there are three stages of progressively deeper sleep before the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, a more restless period when the most vivid dreams occur.

Fussy baby in crib

Babies, however, haven't formed that pattern yet. Not only do they fall asleep and wake up at random times, but they also don't follow the sequence of sleep stages. Babies spend a lot more time in REM sleep than adults do, and they can slip into it immediately after falling asleep instead of going through the other three stages first. Infants also require more sleep overall.

Over time, a child's sleep becomes more like the adult pattern, but unusual features often persist throughout childhood. While individuals vary, a typical sequence goes as follows.

Birth to Three Months: Total Randomness

The period when Brown tried fruitlessly to find a pattern in his daughter's sleep was during the first few months of her life, and it's little wonder it didn't work. Babies that age need a lot of sleep — 15 or 16 hours a day — but are incapable of sleeping more than a couple hours at a time. While asleep, newborns often move around quite a bit.

Three Months to Six Months: A Day/Night Pattern Appears

Most babies still aren't sleeping all the way through the night in the three- to six-month period, but they usually sleep more at night than in the daytime. Their total sleep requirement is still high, so a typical pattern is to sleep most of the night while waking up once or twice, then taking a few naps during the day.

Six Months to 12 Months: Longer Nighttime Sleep

It's usually after six months of age that babies start to sleep through the night, though a large minority take longer. Daytime naps are still common since kids still need around 12 hours of sleep a day into toddlerhood.

Baby crying in crib

…But There Are Also Regressions

Sleep regression occurs when a baby or toddler starts backsliding into earlier, more chaotic sleeping habits. This usually stems from disturbances related to the baby's growth: teething (at around four months), growth spurts (four months and six months), and learning to crawl and then to walk. Such regressions are frustrating for parents, but they're normal and usually temporary.

Is It Normal for Babies To Cry More at Night?

All that explains why babies' sleep habits are so different from yours, but that still leaves the question of why they're crying. Babies cry at any time for many reasons, but if yours is crying more in the evening or nighttime than during the day, there are a few things that could be happening.

The Witching Hour

The "witching hour" is what online parents call the evening hours when many babies get especially fussy. Typically, the baby starts crying at the same time every evening, usually somewhere between adult dinnertime and midnight.

While there's been no definitive research on why the witching hour happens, there are several theories. One is that the baby is responding to changes in other people's behavior. An adult who's been at work comes home, siblings return from school, dinner gets underway — that sort of thing. Babies are very sensitive to stimulation, so the increased activity might upset them.

Another possibility is that the baby gets tired late in the day, and fatigue makes them cranky. Older people often respond the same way, so why not babies? Also, breastfeeding babies often find their mothers' milk production slows as the day wears on, making them unhappy.

Nightmares and Night Terrors

The witching hour is a problem with babies having trouble getting to or staying asleep, but what about babies who cry during sleep? As already noted, babies go through a lot of REM sleep, which normally brings vivid dreams. No one knows exactly when children start to have nightmares, but it's likely that babies crying in their sleep experience something like them.

Crying baby with blanket

Another curious thing about children's sleep, however, is that even when they're in the deepest sleep stage, they often talk, walk, and sometimes show signs of great distress. The latter are "night terrors" or "sleep terrors," and they can occur well past infancy. Babies experiencing nightmares scream, flail, or otherwise show great distress while asleep, but they don't remember anything once they wake up.

Night terrors are quite common in children — almost 40 percent experience them, according to the Mayo Clinic. Again, it's unknown exactly when they start happening, but it could be in infancy. These sleep disturbances usually disappear by adolescence, although a few adults continue to experience them.

Separation Anxiety

You know that your child is perfectly safe alone in their room at night, but the baby's instincts evolved over millions of years when being alone in the dark was a truly dangerous prospect. So it's not surprising that babies feel safest in the arms of a friendly adult and can get upset when they're alone.

This nighttime separation anxiety is largely a modern problem: Historically, only wealthy people could afford separate bedrooms for their children. In modern times, this has led to factions forming over when and how to get children to sleep alone, and this is not the place to adjudicate that argument. Whenever or however you make your child sleep on their own, some distress is likely.

How Can You Get Your Baby To Stop Crying at Night?

While it's the nature of babies to cry and you aren't going to stop it completely, there are ways to ease the crying once it starts. Every baby is their own person, so not everything works for all of them, but here are some popular methods to try.

Baby sleeping in crib

Make Sure the Room Is the Right Temperature

Rooms that are too warm or too cold disturb the sleep of people of all ages. The optimum bedroom temperate for an adult is in the upper 60s (Fahrenheit), but infants usually like it a little warmer, between 68 and 72 degrees.

Make Sure Baby Is Fed

Babies can't eat much at one time because of their small stomachs, but they need to eat often — 8 to 12 times in 24 hours, according to experts. They eat even more during those growth spurts that come every few months. So one of the most common reasons a baby cries at night — or at any time — is hunger.

Try a Swaddle or Sleep Sack

Being wrapped in a blanket or sleep sack is comforting to many infants, probably because it feels like a mother's womb or embrace. Just be sure that the swaddle isn't too tight and the baby is lying on their back in the crib. Swaddling and sleep sacks are best for newborns, and you should stop using them once the baby starts to move around.

"Stop swaddling as soon as your baby shows any signs of trying to roll over," said Drs. Rachel Moon and Danette Glassy of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Some babies start working on rolling as early as two months of age, but every baby is different."

Don't Rush To Pick Up a Crying Baby

Sometimes, a baby's nighttime crying passes quickly, especially while they're still asleep. So if you wake up to the sound of the baby crying, give them a few minutes to calm down before swinging into action. If you do get up, stay calm, keep the lights off as much as possible, and go back to bed once the baby quiets down.

Sleeping baby

Check the Diaper

Lying in a soiled diaper irritates some babies, especially if they have sensitive skin. Persistent crying at night could indicate that they need a change.

Use the Power of Touch

If the baby's fed and physically comfortable but persists in crying anyway, odds are they're just lonely. Giving a baby a reassuring pat or stroke may be all they need. Keep it quick, though. Overstimulating babies tends to get them worked up, and you don't want to reward them for waking you up at night.

When Should You Worry About Your Baby Crying at Night?

Babies are such natural drama queens that sometimes it's hard to tell whether they're crying about something frivolous or something serious. In a typical 24-hour period, a baby spends two or three hours crying, though not all at once, of course. However, babies crying for hours every night could signal an illness.

Fortunately, most sicknesses that afflict infants are easy to remedy. The most common problems stem from the baby's undeveloped digestive tract. Babies often gulp air while nursing and then experience excess gas. Acid reflux is also sometimes an issue. A few babies are allergic to milk, so breastfeeding can actually make them feel sick.

Don't be afraid to take your baby to a doctor if their crying is excessive. Be aware, though, of what the medical profession calls "colic" — infants crying a lot for no discernable reason. Many cases of excessive crying have no identifiable cause, so you'll just have to try to keep your baby as comfortable as possible until they pass out of infancy.

Mom standing over sleeping baby

Keep Calm and Carry On

Hearing your baby cry at night is one of the toughest parts of being a parent, but it goes with the territory. When you understand how your child's mind and body develop, you at least know that their issues are most likely temporary. If your baby's crying at night is stressing you out, the support of family and friends — especially friends who've been through it themselves — is crucial. As a parent, you're doing one of the most critical jobs for society and for the human race, so be patient!

Follow Snooze to find out more about healthy sleep development.

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