Why Babies Wake Up Screaming or Crying Hysterically

Why Your Baby Wakes Up Crying

“Why does my baby wake up screaming or crying hysterically?” That’s a question we hear a lot. Babies wake up screaming due to several reasons some of which are obvious while others aren’t. Learn 4 reasons your baby is waking up crying hysterically in today’s blog post.

Baby Wakes Up Screaming From Hunger

Well, for starters, your baby may obviously wake up crying sometimes due to the need to eat. (Hunger is a powerful motivator!) Babies eat at night for at least 4-6 months and longer if they are breastfeeding. For some babies, the feeling of hunger is intense and they cry intensely until they are fed.

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Babies Wake Up Screaming Due To Discomfort

Additionally, your baby may wake up screaming due to a wet or dirty (or leaky) diaper or may wake up because they are too hot or cold. These are all perfectly reasonable reasons for a baby to wake up. And they’re all reasons that the parents need to address, either by feeding or changing the baby.

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The Wrong Schedule Can Be the Cause

One thing that might make your baby wake up screaming is because they are on the wrong schedule. A baby’s schedule should have the appropriate wake windows. If your baby’s wake windows are too long, that tends to cause frequent waking and crying hysterically between sleep cycles.

For some children, waking up crying is a sign that they aren’t really done sleeping yet, and need more rest. We suspect this has something to do with temperament. Some babies might wake too early from sleep and be fairly quiet and content, others will just wail. This was the case for me. With my firstborn, if he woke up crying, 90% of the time it usually meant that he was not done sleeping. He may have awakened in-between sleep cycles and had trouble going into the next one.

In these cases, it’s sometimes best to wait a minute or two when you hear crying that you suspect is just waking between sleep cycles. Sometimes, your baby will go right back to sleep. Or, even if you ultimately go in to comfort your baby, you’ll know that the goal should be to help baby get back to sleep because they aren’t fully rested yet.

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Sleep Associations Are a Less Straight-Forward Reason for Baby Waking Up Crying

A bit less straightforward reason for babies waking up screaming is the fact that many babies wake up due to their sleep associations. Some sleep associations are pretty straightforward causes of crying upon waking. For example, if your baby’s pacifier falls out, they may very well be pretty frustrated that they can’t put it back in, and that may lead to tears!

But some other sleep associations are less easy to spot as the cause of crying upon waking. If you normally rock or feed your baby to sleep, they may cry when they wake up because they are no longer moving and/or sucking. Similarly, if you typically hold your baby for sleep, they may cry if they wake up in their crib and are no longer being held.

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Is Waking Up Crying Normal?

We all wake up briefly between sleep cycles from time to time. Our babies are no different.

Sometimes, your baby may wake slightly and cry between sleep cycles. This is often the cause of those weird 2-minute crying spells that you sometimes might hear in the middle of the night, or during a nap. At these times, you hear a cry but by the time you’re up and moving toward the baby, they have already fallen back to sleep. The cause is just a brief waking during sleep cycles that happen to be accompanied by some fussing. These are called “confusional events.”

When Nothing Helps

Finally, keep in mind that some babies (and toddlers, for that matter) cry after waking even if they’re fully rested. Some babies will wake up from a marathon nap crying or will wake after a long night of peaceful sleep crying hysterically. In these cases, the problem is most likely that the child just needs a bit of time to fully wake up. (Heck, I know adults like this. I’m one of them, in fact!! I don’t wake up crying, but I need plenty of time and space to fully wake up!) In these cases, you can try cuddling your child, offering a snack or a toy, and allowing your child to slowly wake up.

So, in short, if your baby often wakes up screaming, you’ll want to evaluate the above possible reasons. If it’s not something that requires immediate attention, like hunger or an uncomfortable diaper or illness, then evaluate whether or not it may be a sleep association. To do that, you’ll want to think about how your child falls asleep (in your arms, in the rocker?), and then compare that to how your child is waking up (in the crib, alone?). Finally, keep in mind that temperament makes a difference, too – it may just be that crying is one way that your child lets you know they are not done sleeping, or it may be that your kiddo is one who needs to wake up slowly and is going to fuss a bit while he does it! 😉

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