Why Does Baby Wake Up Crying?

Why does baby wake up crying?

Most often, a baby wakes up crying to eat, because they are wet or dirty, or to have their sleep association recreated (such as replacing a pacifier).

But, what does it mean when your baby wakes up crying from a nap, or in the morning when they are “done” sleeping? In this blog post, I’ll provide information and tips for when your baby wakes up crying.

Baby Crying Between Sleep Cycles

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive reason as to why a baby wakes up crying. However, it is normal for them to cry between sleep cycles.

When my firstborn woke up crying, 90% of the time it meant that he was not done sleeping. He may have partially woken up between sleep cycles and was having trouble going into the next one. My second son had a much easier time going into the next sleep cycle, but he still whimpered a bit between sleep cycles.

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Should You Tend To Your Baby When They Wake Up Crying?

As a sleep consultant with over 13 years of experience, I strongly encourage you NOT to run at the slightest whimper. Crying between sleep cycles is normal and expected. Babies might not cry between sleep cycles every time, but they do sometimes. Some babies cry in their sleep.

I am not saying you need to allow your baby to cry-it-out. Not at all! But, any amount of crying feels too long.

My second son did not have as much of a luxury to be attended to at the slightest whimper because I had my toddler son to take care of, too. When my second son was about 2 months old, I was fixing my toddler his lunch. Son #2 woke up from his nap. I couldn’t get to him right away but was walking to his room by the 3- or 4-minute mark. My hand was on the doorknob and he went back to sleep!! I would have disturbed his nap had I been in there any sooner. Of course, at 2 AM, 3 or 4 minutes feels more like 30, but just keep it in mind and look at the clock.

Is Your Baby Done Sleeping?

When my eldest son woke up from his nap crying, it usually meant he was not done sleeping. (Whether he went back to sleep or not was hit or miss.) So, if he did wake up crying, I knew whether to run in there or not. At the very least, I tried to give him 5 minutes to try to fall back to sleep.

Having said that, I also worked with a mom whose baby, 90% of the time, woke up crying. That’s just how he came out of his sleep cycles. Therefore, it didn’t have the same meaning for her.

In my experience with most families, a baby waking up crying typically means they need more sleep.

Babies do outgrow crying upon waking, and it happens a lot less after you have done sleep training. Through sleep training, your baby can learn to seamlessly go into their next sleep cycle, so after they are truly done sleeping, most babies will wake up happy and cooing.

Does Your Baby Wake Up Crying? If so, here are some resources:

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48 thoughts on “Why Does Baby Wake Up Crying?”

  1. My 3 month old just started waking from her naps and immediately crying. It’s sometjing she did not do before her routine has not changed although some days her naps are very short. She also started scratching the top of her head very hard when she wakes up. What could be the reason for this new behavior?

    • Hi Rosy,
      Thank you for checking out the Baby Sleep Site! I’m sorry to hear your baby has recently been waking up crying. At this age, it may just be that she woke up between sleep cycles and is still tired. Many families use a very gentle technique called “Wake to Sleep” to help lengthen naps at this age. We have an article describing the method here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/wake-to-sleep-help-baby-short-naps/
      I hope this helps, but please let us know if you continue to have trouble! Good luck 🙂

  2. Hi I have a 14 weeks old boy he sleep from around 8pm till around 7/8am with 2 night feeds (exclusively breastfed) but during the day he has a awake window of 1.30 -2hrs and his naps only lasts 30mins exactly each session. The first few naps he would fall asleep by himself and wake up happy but the problem is during his last two naps of the day he would wake up crying and yawn and seem like he Is not done sleeping I would pat and sshh him which sometimes he manage to get another 10-15mins nap then would cry again, is there something I can do?

    • Hi Ki Ki,
      Thank you for your comment! I’m sorry your baby is waking up crying lately after those afternoon naps. What you describe does sound like overtiredness, since all of his naps are so short. At this age, it can be hard for him to connect his sleep cycles during the day, and he may need some support from you until he’s old enough to do it independently. One method that works really well for some families is the “wake to sleep” method, and we have an article explaining that here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/wake-to-sleep-help-baby-short-naps/
      I hope this helps – good luck!

  3. Hi

    What if I rock my baby and he falls asleep 1min and then wakes up screaming and becoming long and stiff. But he’s really tired.
    I’m exhausted. I’ve rocked him for 1h and be is protesting in my arms all the time so he gets over tired eventually and still doesn’t sleep ?

    • Hi Ivy,
      Thank you for your comment! I’m so sorry to hear you’re dealing with this. When you have a minute, could you please write back with your baby’s age, so I can make sure the information Iive you is appropriate for you? Thank you!

  4. My daughter started sleeping 6 hours straight from 2 months until 6 months. She is now turning 11 months old and still wakes up every 1.5-2 hours at night and wanting to breastfeed. She ends up staying in my bed because I’m too tired to get up and put her back in her crib. We have now moved her crib to our bedroom but she still constantly wakes up. I don’t know what to do.

  5. My 6 month old slept 11 hours no problem until two months ago, we were away visiting family for a few weeks. A lot of poor sleep associations and habits were created on the trip. We were able to break them all except now he wakes after 9.5-10 hours. I tried treating it as a night waking for a few weeks and still no progresss. When he wakes, he is crying (and same with waking from naps).
    I tried adding back in a feed an hour before he wakes to see if it was hunger, but there was no improvement.
    He naps 3, sometimes 4 x a day for around an hour. His bedtime is 7:30

    • @Jackie – Thank you for stopping by our sleepy little village and for sharing. We generally expect a 6-month old to sleep a total of 13-15 hours of sleep per day. From what you’ve described, it seems he’s getting about 13-14 total hours of sleep each day. You may want to consider working to transition more of his sleep to the nights than the day by adjusting his nap schedule some to see if this helps him sleep better and reduce the crying upon waking, which I’m assuming is new behavior too. This article may be helpful as it overviews modifying a 6 month old’s sleep schedule: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/6-month-old-baby-schedule-3-steps/

      I hope this is helpful, Jackie. Hang in there, and please keep reading!

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