Hearing your baby cry in the middle of the night can be unsettling. Because they can’t talk, you don’t know for sure why they are crying. But you do know one thing – they’re not sleeping, and neither are you.
But the fact is, especially for babies younger than 6 months, it’s very common for babies to cry and wake up during the night. Your baby is unlikely to sleep through the night before they are 4 to 6 months old, so it’s better to plan for it to avoid frustration and take naps when you can. Also, if your baby has slept for a six-hour stretch (lucky you), they may be quite hungry when they wake up.
So once you have the right mindset, what can you do to prepare and help your baby when they cry at night? Here we prepared some advice for you.
Getting your baby to sleep through the night is a process
One of the most important things to remember is that your baby is learning how to sleep through the night. You might feel a lot of pressure to get your baby to sleep, but it’s important not to be too hard on yourself. It takes time for babies to learn the rhythms of night and day and when to sleep. And remember, being responsive to your baby’s needs is a good thing.
You might have heard that you should “sleep train” your baby or let them “cry it out.” This essentially means that when your baby cries at night, you let them cry while checking on them and they will learn how to soothe themselves back to sleep. There is plenty of debate about whether this method works — and truly little experimental evidence. It can set parents up to feel like they have failed if their baby doesn’t respond to sleep training.
Normal Sleep Patterns By Age
There are some normal sleep patterns by age. Obviously, the term normal means the average duration or pattern of sleep. Read our article to learn more about normal sleep patterns for your baby.
Ensure your baby is sleeping safely
Following recommendations from the AAP is the most important step you can take. Sure, you would like your baby (and yourself) to sleep as much as possible, but making sure they are safe is the top priority. Among the AAP’s recommendations are:
- Babies should sleep on their back until they are 1.
- Babies should sleep on a firm surface, such as a mattress with a fitted sheet, that is free of bedding or other soft objects.
- Parents and caregivers should avoid exposing babies to any smoke.
- Caregivers should always avoid alcohol, sedating medications and illicit drug use while caring for an infant.
- Parents can consider using a pacifier at nighttime or nap time, which has shown a protective effect against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Pacifiers should not attach to clothing or hang around your baby’s neck.
When and how to put your baby to sleep
A lot of people may tell you that you should put your baby down to sleep when they are drowsy, but not fully asleep. This is a good goal, but it is not always possible. Many babies fall asleep while you are holding them, breastfeeding or bottle-feeding them.
You also might hear from advocates of the ‘eat, play, sleep’ bedtime routine, in which babies feed, play for a short amount of time, and then go to sleep. But, this method can lead to unnecessary frustration for parents and dehydration and failure to thrive (falling behind recognized growth standards) in babies.
Share your room with your baby, but not your bed
Have your baby sleep in a portable crib or bassinet near your bed. This allows you to be responsive to their needs without sharing your bed — both of which have shown to reduce the risk of SIDS by as much as 50%.
Having your baby close allows you to monitor them throughout the night, assess their cries and feed them with more convenience. The AAP recommends that your child sleep in your room until their first birthday and definitely until they are 6 months old, at which point the risk for SIDS decreases substantially.
Breastfeed in bed
Breastfeeding is associated with a dramatic reduction in the risk of SIDS. If you are breastfeeding, you should do so in your bed and return your baby to their crib or basinet when they are done. Avoid breastfeeding on sofas or armchairs because if you fall asleep in these areas it can be dangerous and increase the risk for SIDS. Despite best intentions, you might fall asleep while nursing your baby, so make sure that you’re in your own bed, and that it has minimal bedding and pillows that pose a suffocation risk for your baby.
The 6-month milestone
When your baby reaches 6 months old, their risk for SIDS decreases significantly and they are more likely to sleep through the night. They also might be more likely to soothe themselves back to sleep after waking up.
This can be a good time to work on a nighttime routine, such as taking a bath, putting on pajamas, brushing teeth (if they have any), cuddling and feeding, reading a book and then going to bed. This may be a good time to try putting your baby in bed while sleepy, but not yet asleep in hopes that they get used to falling asleep alone.
When your baby does wake up in the night or during naps after reaching 6 months, use these tips for comforting them and helping them get back to sleep:
- Visit your baby as often as you feel is necessary and make your visits loving, but preferably brief.
- Act sleepy and whisper positive sayings, such as “You’re almost asleep.”
- Speak in a loving and calm voice.
- Try not to show any frustration or anger.
Finally, don’t forget that you know your baby best. So trust your instinct and your comfort level. Once you ensure that your baby is sleeping safely, follow these general guidelines, talk with your pediatrician and respond to your baby as you see fit.
How to soothe the baby
When a baby briefly cries out in their sleep, they often settle on their own. Picking them up may wake them up, disrupting their sleep.
If the crying continues, try talking softly to the baby or rubbing their back or stomach. This can help shift them into a different stage of sleep and help them stop crying.
Breastfed babies who nurse in their sleep may find comfort from nursing. Caregivers should decide whether or not the baby is likely to awaken from nursing and assess whether they are willing to risk waking the baby.
It can also be helpful to simply observe the baby’s sleep pattern. Some babies let out a soft cry as they fall deeply into sleep, or immediately before waking. Identifying the baby’s typical sleep pattern can help caregivers assess the cause of crying.
Some babies might cry in their sleep when they are sick or teething, but pain that causes crying will usually wake the baby. Caregivers can talk to a pediatrician about how to ease the baby’s pain.
Although we do not yet know when nightmares start, a caregiver who thinks that they hear their baby having a nightmare can soothe them by talking calmly to them or rubbing their back. Babies who are still breastfed may also find comfort from nursing.
If a baby wakes up after having had a nightmare, comfort them and follow a soothing sleep ritual to get them back to sleep. Older babies and toddlers may need reassurance that the nightmare was not real.
When to call your pediatrician
Call your child’s doctor if
- your child cries out in pain
- your child’s sleep habits suddenly change
- your child’s sleep problems last for several nights and interfere with the ability of the child or caregiver to function
- feeding difficulties, such as a bad latch, not getting enough breast milk, or concerns with a formula sensitivity, interfere with sleep
- crying becomes worse,
- if your child still isn’t sleeping after several weeks of transition
Also do not hesitate to get in touch with your child’s doctor if you ever have any questions or concerns.