Why Do Babies Cry in Their Sleep?

Calming Your Baby When She Fusses in Her Sleep

You’re used to your baby waking up for middle-of-the-night feedings, but what do you do when she cries without waking? It can come as a surprise to find your little one still asleep despite the cries you hear on the baby monitor. But some babies stir and make noises, including fussing and crying, without fully arousing. Understanding why this happens and how to soothe your infant can help you get back to sleep faster.

Why Babies Cry While Asleep

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As you settle into the parenthood gig, you start to recognize your baby’s cries. You can tell when he’s hungry or wet. You know when he’s fussy from overstimulation. But it might seem strange that he’s crying while he sleeps. Do you wake him to feed, change or soothe him? Do you let him fuss it out?

Babies are actually very restless sleepers. Just like you, your baby moves between rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep and a deeper sleep stage. Adult sleep cycles last about 90 minutes, while babies tend to cycle through the phases in 50 to 60 minutes.

Your little one may make noises or cry as he moves from the lighter REM sleep to the deeper sleep stage. He’s not fully awake. He’s just stirring a bit as he transitions through the sleep cycles. In the first few months, part of that is the immature state of his neurological system. He’s still learning to regulate everything.

When the valve that keeps stomach acids and milk from coming back up is not fully mature, it can cause a condition called reflux, which causes a heartburn-like feeling. The contents of your baby’s stomach can go back into the esophagus, making him uncomfortable and restless. To reduce reflux, offer smaller feedings, keep your baby upright after feeding and encourage him to suck.

Can Babies Have Nightmares?

Your conversations with your baby are notably one-sided, so you can’t ask your baby what she dreams about or if she dreams at all. Researchers have mixed opinions as to whether babies dream, and if they do, if they have nightmares. Some experts think babies sleep without dreaming for at least a year or two because of the immaturity of their brains and limited life experiences.

Some babies start developing night terrors around 1 year old, although they’re more common in kids who are a little older. Night terrors are not nightmares. Your little one may seem to be awake, but she’s actually not aware of what’s going on around her. She might scream, cry, stare or seem agitated. As scary as it is for parents to watch, kids don’t remember night terrors the next day, and they aren’t dangerous. It’s best to just let the episode pass without trying to wake your child.

How to Soothe Your Baby

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If your little one simply fusses a little during the transition to deeper sleep, give him a few minutes to settle down without intervention. Unless a noise startles him awake, he’ll likely fall back to sleep without help. Going into his room to soothe him could wake him up completely. Use a baby monitor to listen in on your baby. If his cries increase in intensity, you may need to check on him in case he’s hungry or needs a diaper change.

When to Call Your Doctor

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned the crying might be associated with a medical problem such as reflux. Symptoms include excessive spit-up, grunting or wheezing sounds. You should also check in with your pediatrician if your baby doesn’t appear to be getting enough rest. Your doctor can rule out any medical causes for the crying.

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