As a parent, you can feel quite desperate when your baby wakes up crying hysterically. You want to comfort and soothe them, but it’s challenging to figure out what is wrong. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for why your baby is waking up at night.
For some, nighttime waking and screaming are caused by new milestones and developments; for others, it’s the inability to self-regulate. It could also be a touch of separation anxiety. And while you might not always know the exact cause of your baby’s tears during wakeups, there are some common reasons to consider. Here are a few of them.
Reasons Your Child Might Wake Up Screaming
From birth, your baby will spend time going in and out of sleep cycles, which will evolve. By the time your baby is two to three months old, they should start to develop a rhythm for sleep both during the day and at night.1,2 During this time, they will have periods of light sleep where they can easily wake or may become startled awake, which could cause them to cry or even scream. Similarly, even for older children, babies may be awakened suddenly during deep sleep, which could also result in crying or screaming.
What to Do
One of the reasons we suggest using white noise for naps and night sleep is to prevent your baby from being woken up and startled by loud noises. The steady white noise also helps provide babies consistency as they transition sleep cycles. Babies sometimes become upset when they realize a parent isn’t in the room and may need help getting back to sleep.
If your baby wakes up crying in the middle of the night, try to give them a few moments before going in and observe and listen. Once it is clear your intervention is needed, aim to comfort your baby, and help them get back to sleep in a way they respond to best such as rocking, patting their bum, rubbing their head, nursing, etc.
As your baby ages, they become more aware of their surroundings and dynamics. Your little one should realize when you are or aren’t in the room with them. This awareness, also referred to as object permanence, usually develops around the six-month milestone and can progress to separation anxiety once your child is 12 months or older.3
For small children, the idea that their parents are far away can be frightening and keeps them from calming down and returning to a blissful night of slumber.
What to Do
One way to teach your child that people are still around—even if they can’t see them—is through games that promote object permanence, such as peek-a-boo. You can also practice hiding their toys under a blanket and revealing them a few seconds later. Make sure to do this during the day, not at night.
Object permanence teaches a child that something still exists, even out of view. If your child has actual separation anxiety, making sure to comfort them is crucial, as well as lovingly drawing boundaries and helping your child learn coping strategies.
Most parents have heard that their little ones will have some sleep regressions as milestones come and go, but they don’t expect it to be so hard. Sleep regressions are progressions as your child grows, and these are likely to occur around the 4, 6, 8, 12, 18, and 24-month marks.4 The reason your child is likely hitting a new milestone at each of these ages might be the ability to roll over, crawl, stand up, and more.
What to Do
The best thing you can do when your child hits a sleep progression or regression is to stick to the things you know work. Make sure they are comfortable, have a great sleep environment, and maintain consistency in their routine. It is always okay if you need to offer a bit more soothing, snuggles, or comfort during this time. You want to avoid creating completely new routines or habits that aren’t sustainable long-term.
With growth spurts, teething, or even an infection that may be brewing, physical discomfort can start early in our kiddos. Be sure to check for a fever and pay close attention if they are tugging on body parts such as the nose or ears.
What to Do
If you think your child may be physically uncomfortable, you can consider offering them pain relief through approved medications from your healthcare provider or by treating them holistically. You can also try to suction out clogged noses that keep your baby from breathing comfortably and run a humidifier if your child is struggling with nasal congestion or illness.
In the first few months of life, your baby will likely wake up hungry in the middle of the night and cry. Some little ones wake up so hungry that they begin to cry hysterically. Later, this may be true if you have just stopped their bedtime feeds or weaned them from some feedings in favor of solid food or purees.
What to Do
This can be a tricky dilemma, but there are ways to tackle it. If your little one is hysterical at night because they are hungry, try to supplement their mealtimes during the day if you think they aren’t getting adequate calories. It is common for babies to wake up 1-2 times between 6-12 months and need a night feed, and it is completely fine to offer that.
How to Prevent Your Child from Waking Up Screaming or Crying
If you want to prevent these nighttime awakenings that are distressing for both of you, there are some key things you can try but remember, you can’t completely prevent this from happening.
First, make sure your baby is as comfortable as possible. Then, determine if an environmental trigger causes them to wake, like light shining through curtains. They might be too hot or cold, have a wet diaper, or be in pain from teething or growth spurts. All these issues are common reasons your little one is waking up.
Eliminating these challenges can be the first step to getting them comfortably back to sleep if your baby wakes up crying in the middle of the night.
If you need help getting your child to self-soothe and eliminate middle-of-the-night wakeups, consider getting help from a sleep consultant. A professional experienced in this area can help you get the personalized support you need to pinpoint why your child is waking up and help you figure out what to do.