For many caregivers, sleep-related issues are among the biggest challenges during the baby and toddler years. Sleep problems are common, affecting at least 30 percent of children.
In this article, we look at the reasons why a baby might cry in their sleep, how to soothe them, and the normal sleep cycles that people can expect at different ages.
Why do babies cry in their sleep?
It is common for young babies to make noises during sleep, including crying.
Newborns and young babies may grunt, cry, or scream in their sleep.
Very young children's bodies have not yet mastered the challenges of a regular sleep cycle, so it is common for them to wake frequently or make strange sounds in their sleep.
For very young babies, crying is their main form of communication. It makes sense, then, that babies cry often and might also cry in their sleep.
As long as a baby does not have additional concerning symptoms, such as other signs of illness or pain, this is developmentally normal, and not a sign that something is wrong.
As babies develop more ways to express themselves, crying while asleep may be a sign that they are having a nightmare or night terror. Toddlers and older babies who cry while asleep, especially while moving in bed or making other sounds, may be having night terrors.
Nightmares occur during light sleep, or random eye movement sleep. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur when a child becomes very agitated during the deeper phases of sleep. Children are more likely to cry from night terrors early in the night.
Night terrors are relatively rare and usually occur in children aged between 4 and 12 years old, though people have reported possible night terrors in babies as young as 18 months old. Night terrors may be more likely to occur if a child is sick or sleep-deprived.
How to soothe the baby
When a baby briefly cries out in their sleep, they often settle on their own. Picking them up may wake them up, disrupting their sleep.
If the crying continues, try talking softly to the baby or rubbing their back or stomach. This can help shift them into a different stage of sleep and help them stop crying.
Breastfed babies who nurse in their sleep may find comfort from nursing. Caregivers should decide whether or not the baby is likely to awaken from nursing and assess whether they are willing to risk waking the baby.
It can also be helpful to simply observe the baby's sleep pattern. Some babies let out a soft cry as they fall deeply into sleep, or immediately before waking. Identifying the baby's typical sleep pattern can help caregivers assess the cause of crying.
Some babies might cry in their sleep when they are sick or teething, but pain that causes crying will usually wake the baby. Caregivers can talk to a pediatrician about how to ease the baby's pain.
Although we do not yet know when nightmares start, a caregiver who thinks that they hear their baby having a nightmare can soothe them by talking calmly to them or rubbing their back. Babies who are still breastfed may also find comfort from nursing.
If a baby wakes up after having had a nightmare, comfort them and follow a soothing sleep ritual to get them back to sleep. Older babies and toddlers may need reassurance that the nightmare was not real.
When to call a doctor
A person should speak to a doctor about a child experiencing a sudden change in sleep patterns.
Caregivers should talk to a doctor about nighttime crying and other sleep issues when:
- a child cries out in pain
- a child's sleep habits suddenly change
- a child's sleep problems last for several nights and interfere with the ability of the child or caregiver to function
- feeding difficulties, such as a bad latch, not getting enough breast milk, or concerns with a formula sensitivity, interfere with sleep
What are normal sleep patterns by age?
There is no single normal sleep pattern in babies and young children. Sleep patterns change rapidly over the first 3 years of life, with lots of variation between individual children. The amount of sleep crying will also change over time.
Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults and spend more time in light sleep, meaning that there are more chances for them to cry, grunt, or make other noises in their sleep.
Cultural and family norms can also affect sleep expectations. With the advice of a healthcare professional, caregivers can choose sleep strategies that work for them, their culture, and the needs and personality of their baby.
This section discusses average sleep patterns for babies of different ages. However, there is a lot of variation, and if a baby has a different sleep pattern from those given below, there is often no cause for concern.
Newborns (0–1 month)
Sleep is unpredictable in the first month, often punctuated by brief waking periods followed by naps and longer stretches of sleep. Some babies seem to have confused night and day. Sleep crying is common.
Babies typically wake every 2–3 hours, and sometimes even more often, to eat.
Exposing a baby to natural daylight and establishing a routine may help regulate their sleep patterns. For most babies of this age, however, a regular sleep schedule or long periods of sleep at night are unlikely.
Older newborns (1–3 months)
Newborns aged 1–3 months are still adjusting to life outside the womb. Some begin to develop a regular sleep schedule, though sleeping through the night is unlikely.
At this age, babies often cry out in their sleep or wake up crying if they are hungry. Sleep sessions typically last 3.5 hours or under.
Infants (3–7 months)
Babies aged 3–7 months may develop a regular sleep schedule.
Between 3 and 7 months, some babies begin sleeping longer stretches or sleeping through the night. There is still considerable variation between babies.
Some babies also experience a sleep regression around 4 months that changes their sleep pattern.
Later in this period, many babies develop a sleep schedule of two daily naps and a longer period of sleep at night. Establishing a daily routine and a nighttime sleep routine can help.
Infants (7–12 months)
Most babies will sleep through the night by the time they are 9 months old. At around a year old, some babies drop down to just one nap per day. Others may need two naps per day well into their second year of life.
Toddlers (12 months and older)
Toddlers need 12–14 hours of sleep per day, divided between their nap and nighttime sleep. Most drop down to a single daily nap by 18 months of age.
Toddlers may experience occasional shifts in their sleep habits when something disrupts their routine, they are sick, or they go through a major developmental shift. This may include more crying than usual.
A child who routinely sleeps through the night, for example, may wake at 3 a.m. ready to play for a few nights.
Sleep can be challenging, especially in the early months and years. Every baby is unique and has their own set of needs and tendencies.
Caregivers can find ways to work with a baby's temperament to maximize sleep, soothe crying, and ensure that the baby feels safe and comfortable at night.
In most cases, crying out in sleep is not dangerous or a sign of a serious problem. Sooner or later, almost all babies do it, and eventually, all babies sleep.