Does your baby wake up screaming after naps or in the middle of the night? Take a look at the 5 common reasons why and what to do about it.
Being awoken in the middle of the night by a screaming child is no fun experience! Especially when you’re sleep-deprived.
One week they’re sleeping somewhat okay and for longer stretches, and the next, they’re waking up multiple times a night screaming inconsolably.
What could be happening?
Your baby wakes up screaming in a different environment.
Adults wake up several times per night. Their body tests for safety, and if everything sounds and seems normal, they will immediately go back to sleep.
The trouble with babies arises when they fall asleep in an environment that’s different from the environment they wake up to. When this happens, their body will sound off the alarm, telling them they’re in danger.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that your baby fell asleep while being breastfed. As she falls asleep, her mind subconsciously notes everything that’s happening around her so that she knows what to expect when she wakes up. So, when she wakes up an hour or two hours later, and her senses test out the environment, she notices that not everything is as it should be. She notices that her mom is not there. She’s in her crib, all alone, and immediately her body goes into a fight or flight mode.
Tip: Make sure the environment in which she falls asleep is identical to the environment in which she wakes up. If you’re rocking her to sleep but aren’t planning on doing so for the entire duration of the night (duh), this is something you should reconsider. Feeding and rocking are a normal part of a baby’s life, but make sure they’re happening when your baby is still fully awake. The trick is to teach your baby how to fall asleep on her own.
She’s going through the separation anxiety stage.
Many infants, as they head towards toddlerhood, they start to experience separation anxiety. They slowly learn that people exist separately and that their parents have their own lives to attend to.
They’re also learning the idea of “object permanence,” which means that even though you don’t see some things, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Meaning, your child can be left alone in a room, but she is aware that you exist somewhere, but you’re not next to her. Babies start displaying object permanence and separation anxiety as early as four or five months old, although the majority of them would develop this at around nine months.
Add in strong attachment and the darkness of her room and you have a major cause for why your baby wakes up screaming. She’s simply noticing you’re not next to her and freaks out in fear.
With this in mind, don’t be surprised when suddenly, your baby who slept well is now hysterical the minute you walk out of the room.
- Practice short separations by leaving her in someone else’s care for a few minutes.
- Leave something comforting with your baby, like a scarf with your scent on or a favorite toy.
- When you have to leave, do it when she’s feeling calm, such as after you’ve fed her or a nap.
- Practice separation at home by leaving her sight for a few minutes but letting her hear your voice.
She doesn’t know how to put herself back to sleep.
All humans beings wake up periodically. The difference between adults and babies is that adults are good at putting themselves back to sleep. However, babies are not.
Babies sleep in short sessions that last from 30 minutes to 4 hours, and are in “active sleep” for a large portion of the night, a light sleep state where they’re easily awoken.
So, if your little one doesn’t know how to put herself back to sleep and relies on you for that, she will communicate in the only way she knows how and that is through crying.
She’s crying because she wants you to feed her, rock her to sleep, or needs you to put the pacifier in her mouth.
Tip: Teach your baby how to soothe herself back to sleep. The first step is to create a consistent bedtime routine that will signal to your baby that it’s time to sleep. If you’re feeding your child before sleep, try moving the bedtime feeding session to a slightly earlier part of the bedtime routine. If your child is younger, try giving her a pacifier to help with the self-soothing process, or if she’s older, a soft toy or blanket that they’ve created an attachment to will do the trick. Finally, don’t forget to put her in her crib while she’s drowsy but awake or fully awake if she’s older.
Your baby is going through a milestone.
Babies grow and develop at a fast speed during their first year of life. She’ll be learning how to crawl, walk, or even pull herself up in the crib.
She may not be fully awake, but her brain can still be processing these new things she’s learning in the middle of the night.
Tip: The good news is that once your child masters the new skill she’s learning, the nighttime cryings will stop. It will only last for a couple of days and will be over before you know it.
She could be teething.
Teething can be another cause of why your baby wakes up screaming. Generally, babies start teething between four and seven months old.
The waking is triggered by the pain your baby feels that can include gum soreness, mouth rash, and drooling. The irritability gets worse during naps and bedtime when she doesn’t have her typical daytime distractions.
Tip: Take your baby to the pediatrician to confirm she’s teething. General tips for soothing a teething baby include:
- Rubbing your little one’s gums with a clean finger or wet gauze.
- Putting something cold in your baby’s mouth like a chilled pacifier.
- Getting an over-the-counter remedy such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.