Parents know it all too well: your baby repeatedly wakes up at night and begins to cry or scream. Sometimes it happens only once or twice and your baby calms down quickly, but other times it isn’t so easy.
So, what are the reasons why babies start crying at night?
The sleep cycle of a newborn baby
The sleep of a newborn baby is very different from that of an adult. Your baby’s sleep cycles are shorter and they have not yet developed a regular day-night rhythm. In addition, babies go through several sleep phases throughout the night and these can be of very short duration - sometimes only a few minutes.
Between the sleep phases, a baby wakes up more often; they also alternate between active and quiet sleep phases. Babies’ sleep is also lighter, so they are quicker to wake up due to the typical baby needs, such as hunger, cold or even loneliness. When this happens, they typically start to cry or scream. You ask yourself, “what can I do when my baby cries in his sleep?”
Sleep is important for your baby’s cognitive and neurological development. It’s generally thought that babies grow while they sleep, which obviously includes their brains. Babies also process and store the events of the previous day while they sleep. Babies need a great deal of sleep, especially in the first few months of life, with 16 to 18 hours recommended for newborns. That said, they usually do not sleep more than five hours at a time.
For most babies, the sleep phases do not become more regular until they reach the age of six months. From around this point on, they can sleep for up to six hours at a stretch. By the end of their first year, most babies can sleep for six to eight hours at a time. However, there is one thing to keep in mind: Every baby is different and has a different sleep pattern.
Crying in sleep - possible causes
So why is my baby crying in his sleep? There can be several different reasons why, so you should pay attention to the different signals your baby gives you. Babies cry in their sleep because they’re having bad dreams, are processing the day’s experiences or perhaps have a slight stomach ache. Usually the causes are easy to determine and you don't have to worry too much if your baby is crying in his or her sleep.
The sleep phases described above which your baby goes through at night are another reason. The transition from individual sleep cycles still isn’t seamless, so your baby sometimes wakes up from the transition from one sleep phase to the next. An adult sleep cycle lasts about ninety minutes, while a baby's cycle lasts only fifty to sixty minutes.
The brain of a newborn baby is more active at night and babies have on average more dream phases than adults, during which they move around or kick. This is completely normal and even important for a baby's motor development. It is important that the baby not be overdressed and be able to move sufficiently during sleep.
Due to the many dream phases, babies both smile and cry in their sleep. Of course, basic needs such as heat, hunger and full nappies can also lead to crying and screaming. Babies can even be awakened by the so-called night terrors.
The night terrors in children
A night terror can occur when the child changes from deep sleep to dream sleep; though night terrors were long believed to be identical to common nightmares, we now know that this is not the case. Night terrors occur during the first half of sleep, generally between one and four hours after falling asleep. It is characterized by the child waking up in the night and screaming, sometimes even kicking and punching. About 4% of children are affected by night terrors. However, it does not leave any damage and has no negative effect on the child’s psyche. However, night terrors are rare in children under the age of two.
A growth spurt can be another reason why babies cry in their sleep. Especially in their first months of life, babies grow in spurts or jumps, both mentally and physically. These spurts can cause growth-related pain and can wake a baby up at night, though this is debated.
Babies from two to six weeks have an average crying time of 1.5 hours over a 24-hour period and babies from 6 weeks have an average crying time of 2.5 hours. It is therefore perfectly normal for babies to cry at night. It is important to know the reasons for this when you ask yourself "Why does my baby cry while he sleeps?”
What should I do when my baby cries at night?
Your baby doesn’t need to be fed or comforted each time he or she cries at night. The important thing is to watch your baby and pick up on the cues he or she gives you. Usually babies cry with their eyes closed, which can be an indication that they are in transition from one sleep phase to the next. In this phase babies calm down quickly on their own and do not need to be taken out of their crib or bed.
If you pick your baby up in this case, he or she might fully awaken and take longer to fall back asleep. If your baby cries with his eyes open, the mere presence of an adult is sometimes sufficient to calm him or her down. If his nappy is dry and he isn’t hungry, hot or cold, he might just be a little lonely. In this case, you should make eye contact with him. The voice of his parents can have a calming effect on the baby. You can also place your hand on the baby's chest or use a cuddle cloth. Most babies find their way back to sleep by themselves.
A regular daily routine
A regular daily routine and an evening routine can also help the baby fall asleep faster and sleep through the night longer. From the fifth month onwards, babies can recognise certain patterns in their daily routine and adjust to them. This helps them to develop a day-night rhythm more quickly. If there is a fixed rhythm of times to play, eat and sleep, babies know when it is time to sleep. The routine also gives your baby a feeling of security and safety.
As a result, babies naturally do not like change. Your baby can remember the situation and circumstances before he or she falls asleep. For example, if your baby falls asleep in his pram, he can still expect to be in the pram when he wakes up. If babies suddenly wake up, they immediately check their surroundings and feel uncomfortable or disoriented if anything has changed.
Likewise, if the baby has fallen asleep on his mother's breast and then wakes up in his crib, he may feel uncomfortable. It is therefore important to keep the baby awake a bit longer before moving him to his crib or bed, so he learns to associate sleep with this specific place to the point that he can fall asleep in the crib on his own without being surprised that he has woken up there.
Keep your baby’s bed in your bedroom
It is also advisable that the baby’s crib or baby bed be placed in the parents' bedroom, especially in the first months of life. Some parents believe that it coddles or pampers children to tend to them too quickly and that you don't have to run to your baby every time he cries out. However, it has been shown that a quick response to their calls creates trust between the baby and the parents.
As already mentioned, you don’t always have to pick your baby up each time he cries. The mere presence of an adult can be enough to calm your baby down. Even hearing the sound of the parent’s breath can have a positive effect on the baby's well-being.
There are many different reasons why a baby can suddenly wake up at night and start crying. If you can rule out hunger, heat, cold, full diapers and physical discomfort, it may be enough to stand next to your baby’s sleep area, make eye contact and gently touch your baby. Babies wake up more often in between sleep cycles and might even be awakened by growth spurts.
It is important that you observe your child and pay attention to what caused the crying. Never let your child cry unobserved for more than two minutes and try to establish a routine for the baby that is as consistent as possible.