Baby Wakes Up Crying: Why & What You Should Do

Ah, lovely, your baby woke up crying and you can’t seem to figure out what’s going on. Not only is it scary enough to have a baby that won’t stop shouting from the top of their lungs while you’re clueless as to what’s causing all this mess, they woke up crying in the middle of the night too.

What lovely, convenient timing you’ve chosen, my little one!

Wondering why baby can’t seem to sleep through the night without waking up crying and screaming all over the place? It’s usually nothing to overly worry about – so read on for the details.

Is It Really Your Baby Waking Up Crying?

First things first, is your baby really waking up crying in the middle of the night? Many parents tend to make a big deal out of very minor – and normal – noises they hear while their little one’s asleep.

It could be a small whimper and whine here or a very faint cry there, but we tend to over-dramatize things in our heads because of how much we love – and care for – our little bundles of joy.

So, just because you hear something so minor every now and then doesn’t mean you have anything worth panicking about.

If you’re adamant it’s your baby waking up crying, though, and it’s happening frequently – then by all means do what you have to do to make sure everything is okay.

Why Does My Baby Wake Up Crying?

Not all babies wake up crying in the middle of the night for the same reasons, but the following list discusses some of the most common culprits.

1) Night Terrors

Not to be confused with nightmares, night terrors in toddlers and babies are fairly common sleep disturbances.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “ It’s important to note that night terrors typically don’t occur in infants. They tend to begin during the toddler years, and at late as early grade school years.

The following links by the AAP and Nemour’s Hospital are helpful resources that cover this subject:

Nemour’s has documented age of onset as young as 18 months old.”

2) Illness

It could be that your little one just happens to be sick. They don’t necessarily have to be down with anything too dangerous, it could be something mild that causes them pain and discomfort that they’re not used to feeling.

A fever, throat pain or ear pain is enough to keep them uncomfortably awake. Other times, it could be indigestion, stomach pain (this is especially common in children who have acid reflux) or a simple (but annoying) case of congestion and blocked sinuses.

Keep an eye out for other symptoms besides waking up crying in the middle of the night and do your due diligence – because if they are indeed sick, they should be taken to the doctor’s for a checkup and this should not be neglected.

3) Hunger

Sometimes, your baby might just be hungry and crying out to be fed.

4) Pacifier Fell Off

If your baby falls asleep with their pacifier safely locked in their mouth, but it falls out a while later and they become aware of that, they might start crying.

The translation to their crying here is basically: “Mom! Dad! Come put the paci back in my mouth or else I’m going to get very cranky! You know I can’t get down there myself, pick it up and put it in my mouth again, don’t you?!”.

This often gets referred to as “prop dependency”, where the child wakes up and makes a fuss when they realize the prop that helped them fall asleep is now gone.

5) Weaning Off The Pacifier

Do you happen to be weaning your baby off the pacifier nowadays?

If so, they’re going through lots of adjustments and getting used to life without their paci for soothing purposes, so waking up crying in the middle of the night is only a normal occurrence in that context.

Regarding pacifier use, here are some comments from the AAP regarding when to wean it.

6) Diaper Change

Perhaps they’re just waking up crying because of a wet (or leaky) diaper that needs to be changed. Sitting in a soiled diaper is no fun – not that I can recall what it feels to be in one myself ..

We can’t help with that one, changing the diaper in the middle of the night is all on you!

7) Temperature

What’s the temperature in their room like at the time they wake up crying?

If it’s too hot or too cold for their liking and comfort, that could be another thing to factor in. Turn it up or down a notch so baby’s comfortable again.

8) Sleep During Feeding

Has your baby fallen asleep while being breastfed?

If so, there’s a chance they’ll wake up crying after a while because they’re no longer sucking and want to get that soothing experience back.

9) Lack Of Movement

If you’re used to rocking your baby to sleep, they may wake up and start crying after a while if they become aware of the lack of movement that got them to fall asleep in the first place.

10) Need More Sleep

Sleep experts will tell you that sometimes a baby waking up crying is just one of their ways of communicating to you that they’re not done sleeping yet.

They still feel sleepy, they still need more rest and they’re making this known. Sometimes, they might need your help to soothe them back into their next sleeping cycle.

11) Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is one of the most common causes of babies waking up crying during the night, and is often experienced when children are around the 6 months of age mark.

You’ll be able to tell it’s separation anxiety triggering all the crying if your presence alone next to your kid suffices in calming them down (or the presence of your partner – if available).

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “The following is a useful article from the AAP that discusses tips on how to manage separation anxiety in babies.

This is a big issue among many of my parents – not just with their infants, but toddlers and older children as well. This creates LOTS of parent anxiety, which just makes their child’s anxiety worse.”

12) Teething

When teething begins at around 6 months of age, expect your little one to go through lots of sleep disturbances and discomfort that intensify through the night.

13) Overly Tired

Is your baby getting enough sleep in the form of naps throughout the day?

It’s not just the night time sleep that matters – naps during day time are also extremely important in making sure they get the rest they need and are able to re-energize for the new day to come.

An over tired baby is a cranky baby that will voice their fatigue by waking up crying in the middle of the night.

Here’s a great article with a chart that states recommended hours of sleep based on your little one’s age.

14) Night Feeding

Is your child used to waking up in the middle of the night a couple of times for bottle feeding or breastfeeding sessions?

If they are and you’ve decided to stop doing that recently, there’s a proper way to do it (i.e a transitional phase) and a wrong way to do it.

When it’s done the wrong way without a proper transitional phase to stop night feeding, you’ll have a baby waking up crying in the middle of the night expecting to be fed the way they’re used to.

15) Noise

Is there excessive noise that could be bothering your little one?

Loud noise from a TV turned on in the room they’re sleeping in (or another room next to theirs), a loud and startling noise from outside the house that can easily be heard through their room’s window, etc ..

These are all factors that could annoy your baby, and the only way they can communicate to you that they’re bothered is by crying.

16) Mosquito Bites

Sometimes it’s those pesky mosquitoes doing what they do best – annoying the life out of everyone in sight!

Mosquito repellents for babies could come in handy in this case.

17) Scared

Sounds quite obvious, right? Well, it is, but we rarely ever think about this when panic kicks in and we start to over-think things in our head.

It could just be that your child got scared of something they saw (or thought they saw) or heard (or thought they heard). It’s normal and children do this all the time.

Now go get rid of that monster under your baby’s bed, will you please?

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “There is another thing that many parents do that startles infants and toddlers: the parent will put the baby to sleep in one place, then transfer them to the crib after he/she falls asleep.

For example, the parent rocks them to sleep while in the parent’s room or
other room of the house. If the infant wakes after the transfer to the crib, they cry because they are waking in a different situation.

Because of this, I always recommend that parents put the infant or child to sleep in their own bed.”

18) Pain

Oftentimes, lots of issues can cause your little one to be in pain – conditions such as colic, GERD, hair
tourniquet, etc ..

UpToDate has a very patient-friendly article on colic, if you’d like to learn more about it and find out if this might be the reason your little one often wakes up crying.

As for a hair tourniquet situation, you can read more about this here.

What Should I Do When My Baby Wakes Up Crying?

Confused about what it is exactly you should be doing when baby wakes up crying in the middle of the night? Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.

1) Give It A Bit Of Time

The first thing you should ever do in these cases in calm down yourself and understand that just because you hear baby crying a little bit in the other room does not mean you have to get up frantically and rush to them.

If it’s not intense crying, there’s a good chance that your baby will fall back asleep in 2 or 3 minutes on their own if you let it go and don’t make a big deal out of it.

Babies wake up for brief periods of time in between their sleep cycles, the same way we do, and it’s just that they can become fussy sometimes when they do.

So, sometimes letting things work themselves out is the best approach, and baby will fall back asleep on their own after a few minutes.

Just make sure that it’s not unusual crying that might signal something more dangerous going on.

2) Calm Them Down

Do whatever it is you can do to soothe your baby, calm them down and get them back into sleepy mode.

Having a white noise machine play in the background is a good first step, but there are also many other soothing techniques you could put to use when you need them most.

Read this guide from the AAP for more information about how to calm a fussy baby down.

3) Bed Sharing

Sometimes you might have to resort to bed sharing to calm your little one down and get them to fall back asleep.

If not bed sharing, then you might have to at least try sleeping in the same room by moving their crib or bassinet into your bedroom and having them sleep next to you.

That way they feel safe next to you and won’t feel as lonely, and you won’t need as much time to get out of bed and get to them to calm them down as you would had they been in another room.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “Bed Sharing” is a controversial topic when it comes to infants.

I think it is important to make it clear that it increases the risk of SIDS in infants, and is not recommended.

Parents should also know the difference between “room sharing” and “bed sharing.”

Room sharing, where the infant is on a separate sleep surface but near the parent is safe. Having the infant in the bed with the parent is not.

Here is a patient-friendly article that discusses this in detail:

Clinically, I have found that bed sharing in older children contributes to separation anxiety. In a sense, it delays learning to self-soothe and their ability to put themselves to sleep.”

What Should I Avoid Doing When My Baby Wakes Up Crying?

Even though you might mean well at the time, the following is a list of stuff you should avoid doing when baby wakes up crying – or else you’re going to have a very difficult time getting them to fall back asleep anytime soon.

1) Don’t Excite Them

One mistake many parents fall victim of is exciting their baby.

You might mean well and think that by playing around with them and exciting them you’re taking their mind off of whatever caused them to wake up crying in the first place – but be aware that the more alert they become, the more difficult it will be for you to put them back to sleep again.

Instead of exciting them by talking in a loud voice and playing around with them, talk to them in a calm and soothing voice – you have a much better chance at getting them to fall back asleep that way.

When you want to put your baby back to sleep, try to be as boring as you can. As funny as this may sound to you at first, it works!

2) Minimum Conversation

Speaking about not exciting your baby, keep the conversation to a bare minimum – while trying your best to bore them back into sleep.

The more you talk to them, the more aware they will be and the more difficult it’ll be to get them to fall back asleep – and vice versa.

3) Don’t Turn On The Light

Doing this will also make them much more alert and – as a result – will make it difficult for you to put them back to sleep again.

Instead, make use of a nursery night lamp.

When Should I Worry?

Again, a baby waking up crying in the middle of the night is something very normal and usually nothing to overly worry about. As a matter of fact, experts believe that it’s very normal for babies to cry between sleep cycles, especially newborns.

Now it’s not going to happen in between each and every sleep cycle, and thank goodness it isn’t like that! Just know that it does happen between sleep cycles sometimes and, when it does, it’s perfectly normal.

With that being said, there are some patterns you should keep an eye out for that possibly signify something more serious going on.

How long has this been happening for? And, more importantly, how recurring is it?

It is a once in a while occurrence? If so, you more than likely have nothing to worry about, as this is just one of those “a baby’s gotta do what a baby’s gotta do” things.

On the other hand, if it’s a fairly frequent occurrence – something like every single night or every other night – then you should definitely look more into this to figure out what’s going on.

Play It Safe With A Baby Monitor

If your little one’s sleeping in a room of their own and not next to you in yours, stay on top of the situation at all times by getting and using a baby monitor.

That way you’ll be made aware of whenever they wake up crying, and can check on them right away.

Stick To A Strict Sleeping Schedule

Are you doing your part as a parent and sticking to a strict sleeping schedule with your baby? Or are you giving them all sorts of mixed signals by switching things up every other day?

Sticking to a strict sleeping schedule will help them sleep better through the night without waking up crying, while messing this part up is only going to cause trouble.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “I agree that a “strict sleep schedule” is very important.

In my practice, I see many families in which babies don’t sleep well because their bedtime routine is inconsistent.

Keeping to the same routine and same bedtime makes a big difference.”

A Quick Note For Prevention Purposes

We don’t give this much thought as parents nowadays, but there’s a lot we can do for our children to help them have a better time sleeping at night.

Example? Make sure they only watch happy stuff on television, Youtube while scrolling on your phone, etc ..

If they watch anything scary, be that imagery or video – and especially if they watch it late at night – chances are it’s going to come up again in their dreams at some point in time during the night. What then? Well, they’ll wake up frightened, panicking and crying.

Note from Dr. Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.: “Infants and children of all ages sleep better when electronic, screened devices are turned off at least 30 minutes
prior to bedtime.

This allows the brain a chance to “wind down” and helps with faster sleep onset.

Here is an article that discussed the effect of electronics at bedtime from the National Sleep Foundation:

Wrapping It Up

I know, I know – it sucks. Your little one wakes up crying in the middle of the night and wakes you up too, as well as the rest of the family if the house isn’t that spacious and you’re all sleeping in nearby quarters.

But, it is what it is. This is just one of those things that babies do out of nature, and it’s something we – as parents and caretakers – will have to learn to accept and live with.

It all gets better as they age, anyways, so don’t worry – it won’t last forever!

If it’s abnormal and intense crying, though, do your due diligence to make sure baby is okay and there’s nothing serious going on that you should deal with right away. Better safe than sorry!

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Medically Reviewed By: Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Medically Reviewed By: Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. After graduating from Kalamazoo College and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, she completed her pediatric residency at Overlook and Morristown Memorial Hospitals. She is board certified in General Pediatrics.

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