Why babies wake up crying

It’s the sound that no mum wants to hear – the wailing of your child cutting through your sleep and forcing you out of bed to see what’s wrong! Sleep Coach Cheryl Fingelson shares her expertise about kids and night time crying.

There are several reasons babies or toddlers wake up crying, but it must be noted that periodically people of all ages wake momentarily between sleep cycles – and babies are no different!

These brief waking or near-waking periods are often the cause of those strange, brief crying spells sometimes heard in the middle of the night or during a child’s nap. Usually, by the time the parent has woken up and is mobile, the child has already fallen back to sleep.

What do when you hear your child cry out in the night

For some children, waking up crying signifies that they have not yet slept sufficiently and need more rest. In these instances temperament may be the determinant. Some babies may wake early from sleep quiet and placid, whereas others will just fuss and wail! Sometimes it is best to wait a while as the baby will go straight back to sleep, but even if the child ultimately needs comforting, the goal should be to attain the full cycle by encouraging further sleep.

Looming developmental leaps often cause tearful wakening and can lead to temporary sleep regression.

Somewhat more obscure is the fact that babies wake up as a result of sleep associations some of which are fairly straightforward. An example would be if the dummy had fallen out of the baby’s mouth, leading to frustration and then tears.

Other obvious and common reasons for waking are:

  • Hunger
  • A dirty nappy
  • Feeling too hot or too cold

These are all perfectly reasonable and are issues that parents need to address either by feeding, changing the nappy, regulating the room temperature or adjusting the child’s clothing.

Some other sleep associations to look out for:

  • Rocking baby to sleep. The baby wakes and may cry because the movement has ceased.
  • Nursing baby to sleep. A sudden discovery that it is no longer ‘sucking’ can cause the baby to wake up distressed.
  • Holding baby for sleep. Baby wakes up and realizes that it is no longer being held.

Separation anxiety or fears of abandonment can begin at a very early age according to some psychologists. Upon waking, certain babies will begin to cry if they are not in their mother’s arms. Other children wake more than once during the night and will only be pacified by a particular parent.

Finally, bear in mind that some babies or toddlers will routinely cry on waking up, even though they are fully rested. Crying after a long nap or a lengthy night of peaceful sleep may indicate that the child just needs a little more time to become fully awake. Cuddling the child or offering a favourite toy should allow sufficient time for this to be achieved.

Cheryl Fingleson is a paediatric sleep consultant. As a mother of two, she very well knows the feelings of agony and desperation when you have a child that struggles to settle and sleep. She doesn’t believe in leaving babies or children to cry it out, nor in the practices of controlled crying. Her approach is to empower parents with the right tools and techniques to teach their babies and children to go to sleep calmly, happily and independently. Cheryl is available for in home and Skype consultations at The Sleep Coach.

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