Why does my baby wake up crying hysterically? is a question I get asked a lot. While parents would often like a quick fix for this not-so-pleasant issue, there’s often several reasons your baby might cry when they wake up.
In today’s post, I’ll uncover the 9 biggest reasons babies cry when they wake up and how to fix them.
9 reasons baby wakes up crying
You’ll find that you have to play “detective” quite a bit as a parent, and especially even more with babies, as they cannot communicate with us. I’ve outlined the nine most common reasons your baby might wake up crying, but just to give you a little direction, here are some things to consider first:
- If your baby is anywhere from 3-6 months, it could be the dreaded 3 month sleep regression that hits around this age that’s the culprit. As you’ll see below, teaching baby some self-soothing will really help with this.
- If your baby is a newborn and is not swaddled, waking up crying can be fixed pretty easily with swaddling.
- If your baby has just started solids they may be affecting their sleep considerably. Below I’ve outlined what to do if you think that’s the culprit.
Your baby wakes up screaming because they have reached the end of a sleep cycle
During your babies newborn days, they pretty much can sleep anywhere, anytime, but as they get older, things very quickly change. If you’re noticing your baby cry when they wake up and your baby is just around the three or four month age, it may be because their sleep cycles are just starting to emerge.
A baby sleep cycle is 45 minutes and before babies learn how to self soothe or put themselves back to sleep without your assistance, they will awake from these sleep cycles and not know how to fall back to sleep without you.
This results in crying or screaming to get your attention. If you haven’t already, this is a great age to teach your baby how to self soothe, which brings me to my next point.
Baby doesn’t know how to self-soothe
Quite possibly the biggest reason your baby wakes up crying hysterically (outside of being sick or teething) is because they lack self-soothing capabilities. Once a baby learns how to self-settle and resettle future sleep regressions won’t even affect them.
You can begin to teach your baby good sleep hygiene from the beginning, and babies are capable of learning self soothing methods from age 4 months. Here’s a great overview on the most common sleep training methods.
I typically suggest very gentle sleep training methods first like Shush Pat or Pick Up/Put Down (you can read all about these in depth in the article I linked above).
While teaching your baby to self-soothe, you’ll need to make sure you’re following a sleep schedule that’s appropriate for their age so they’re not over or under tired. Following your baby’s appropriate wake window for their age will help you develop a good routine.
Your baby’s sleep schedule is off and they are over tired
Once baby passes that 3 month age mark and sleeps becomes more difficult to come by, it’s a great time to set a sleep schedule.
Naps on the go start to get harder to achieve and if one or two naps aren’t at home by the time baby reaches 3-4 months, many babies have a hard time sleeping or wake up early from a nap or during the night due to over tiredness.
This over tiredness makes it very hard for babies to settle or resettle as a lack of sleep does not actually make a baby more likely to sleep.
Following a schedule designed around wake windows will go a long way towards building a routine that allows your baby to thrive. You can click the link in the last sentence to learn about wake windows and how they shift dramatically as your baby ages.
Beyond following the correct wake window for your baby’s age, starting and stopping your baby’s day at the same time each day and when it naturally corresponds with their circadian rhythm is best. Babies aged 4-6 months do well going to bed at 6:30 and awake by 7am, while babies aged 7-12 months do well going to bed by 7 and awake by 7.
Your baby is teething or sick
Babies will often times sleep very poorly waking up frequently if they are teething and/or sick. While this is certainly no fun for your little one, this typically passes within a few days and the best thing you can do is be ready to comfort them when they awake from crying.
Don’t worry about starting any bad habits by rocking them or soothing them to sleep when they are teething or distressed, as baby is likely to go right back to sleeping as they were when the illness passes or their teeth stop bothering them.
Your baby has just started solids
A big culprit in why your baby wakes up screaming might be that you have just introduced solids and baby’s digestive system is a little out of whack as a result.
Breastmilk and/or formula is very easy for baby to digest and introducing solids can really throw baby for a loop. They can easily get constipated, or wake upset from being wet as the result of more for their little bellies to process.
This generally passes as baby gets introduced more and more to solids, but in the meantime, there’s a few tips I always give to parents:
- Start with small amounts of food (1tsp) per meal and slowly work your way up to 1/2 cup of food per meal.
- Skip the breakfast meal until your baby is sleeping through the night as it tends to interfere with nighttime sleep.
- Introduce low GI carbs at lunch and dinner to help stabilize the blood sugar (offering high GI carbs is a huge offender for sleep disruption as it quickly spikes the blood sugar and then comes back down, often waking baby at night).
- Low GI carbs are things like oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, quinoa, etc.
- Add protein at lunch to help stabilize blood sugar and prevent night wakings from hunger.
- Don’t offer a protein at dinner until baby is 10 months, as protein takes longer to digest and con often interfere with sleep.
If after following all of these tips, fixing baby’s sleep schedule and working on self-soothing you find that baby is still waking and crying, try eliminating the dinner meal and instead do lunch and breakfast.
Your baby is hungry
If you’re breastfeeding on demand, make sure you’re picking up on baby’s hunger cues, as they often hit growth spurts and will suddenly need to ingest more calories than they did before. These growth spurts typically pass soon, but if you put a breastfed baby (or formula fed) on a schedule without taking hunger cues into consideration, you’ll likely miss this.
There’s a pretty big growth spurt at 4 months of age that typically throws parents, as they get fooled into thinking baby is out of the newborn phase where hunger varies by the day.
If you’re formula feeding, outside of growth spurts, there’s a simple equation to make sure baby is getting enough:
Weight in pounds x 70 ml= the amount of mls baby needs in a 24 hour time period. For example, a 10 pound baby needs 700 mls over a 24 hour window, so then you divide 700 mls by the number of feedings per 24 hours to give you roughly what baby needs each feed.
Your baby wakes up crying because they have hit a sleep regression
Your baby might wake up screaming because they are going through a sleep regression, which happens when a change in the sleep cycle length develops as the result of baby growing/developing.
When parents help their baby learn gentle self-soothing practices from an early age, babies typically don’t even experience these sleep regressions.
Babies that hit sleep regressions and have always been heavily assisted to sleep are typically a huge mess when these sleep regressions emerge.
One of the biggest sleep regressions is the 3 month sleep regression, but often this emerges any time during 3-6 months.
The best thing you can do to help baby make it through a sleep regression is to teach them how to self settle and resettle when they wake up early from a nap or in the night outside of a feed time.
Your baby’s environment is different than it was when they went to sleep
Keeping baby’s sleep environment the same when they drift off to sleep as it is when they wake up after a sleep cycle is crucial. This means if baby falls asleep being rocked and in your arms and wakes up in a cold crib without you, and doesn’t have any self-soothing skills, they’re going to freak out and cry.
If your baby has sleep crutches it’s easy to work through this with some self-soothing techniques so that when baby wakes up in the middle of his nap time or at night outside of feeding time, he can happily put himself back to sleep.
Your baby wakes up crying hysterically because they aren’t swaddled
If your baby is under four months of age and hasn’t shown signs of rolling yet, swaddling is the key to a great sleep. Babies feel safe in secure in a swaddle as the closeness reminds them of the womb, and most importantly it prevents them from waking up due to the moro reflex.
The moro reflex typically disappears around 4-5 months but it causes babies to flail their arms in a panic while they’re sleeping, which wakes them up and typically makes them cry hysterically. The swaddle allows them to sleep peacefully as it stops them from startling themselves awake.
I’m personally a huge fan of the velcro swaddles, as I have seen how easy it is for babies to break out of the swaddle blankets as they get past those first few weeks and develop more strength.
Remember, the swaddle must be stopped after you see signs of rolling, even if baby is younger than 4 months.
If you’re still struggling with your baby waking up crying after you try these tips, check out more baby sleep advice here.