If your little one wakes at night screaming and crying hysterically, it makes sense to be concerned. When your child has reached this level of distress, it can be difficult to soothe them. All your normal tricks and tools might not be what your baby or toddler needs to settle down.
In most cases, getting to the cause of their distress is the first step to helping your child get back to deep, peaceful sleep. There are many reasons why a good night's sleep might be interrupted by tears, and knowing all the possibilities can empower you to help your baby or toddler.
Why does my baby wake up screaming?
These are the most common reasons a baby will wake up screaming:
- Hunger. Infants have small stomachs, which means they'll be hungry much more frequently than older babies and toddlers. Some brand-new babies will eat as frequently as every hour or two, nursing or taking a bottle between 8 and 12 times a day.
- Gas. A gassy tummy can cause significant discomfort and pain. If your baby is crying hysterically and you're unable to soothe them with the basics – feeding, cuddles, and a diaper change – they might have gas. Clenched fists and squirming are also signs of gas. Talk to your baby's doctor about medication if this is a consistent issue.
- Teething. As early as 3 or 4 months old, your baby may start cutting their first teeth. If your baby is crying and has red or inflamed gums, they're probably teething. You can offer relief from teething pain in a variety of ways: A gum massage, cold teething toys, and over-the-counter pain medication (ask the doctor first) are all options you can try.
- Illness. Babies rely on crying to communicate their needs, making tears their primary way to tell you they're sick. You might notice mood changes, changes in appetite, fever, and fussiness if your baby isn't well. Mild illness can often be managed at home with over-the-counter medication for symptoms like pain or fever. More severe symptoms of illness in a baby like persistent high fever, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or symptoms of an ear infection warrant a call to their pediatrician. If you suspect your baby is dehydrated or having trouble breathing, or if they're extremely lethargic, seek immediate medical care.
- Sleep regression. Throughout their first year, your baby will likely experience sleep regressions. These changes in their sleep might be triggered by an upset in their routine, like a trip, or a developmental leap. Differences in awareness can cause a sleep regression as well. Many newborns can sleep anywhere, without regard for stimuli in their environment. As they get older, they become more aware of their surroundings and light, noise, and a lack of routine could make it difficult for them to sleep well.
- Separation anxiety. Around 9 months old, babies typically become more clingy and prefer their caregiver over strangers or even other family members. This is called separation anxiety. Your baby is securely attached to you and they don't want you to leave, even if you're just headed to another room. Sometimes, dealing with separation anxiety is a matter of waiting out this developmentally appropriate milestone. Having a calming routine that makes time for connection before bed, as well as sticking with a consistent nap and nighttime sleep schedule, can help.
Why does my toddler wake up screaming?
Toddler sleep can be interrupted by many of the same things that bother babies, but they also face new sleep problems as they grow older. These are the most common reasons toddlers might wake up screaming at night:
- Nightmares. Nightmares can cause your toddler to wake up upset and frightened. Less commonly, toddlers 18 months and up can have night terrors. During night terrors, kids don't wake up (they're in the deepest stages of sleep) but may be screaming, breathing rapidly, sweating, and thrashing around. This can look scary, but night terrors are harmless – and you shouldn't try to wake your child up.
- Teething. Your child will continue teething well into their second and third years. This means they could experience pain and discomfort that wakes them at night. If your child is moving their hands or objects to their mouth and they have red and swollen gums, they may have new teeth that will soon erupt.
- Sleep regression. Babies aren't the only ones who experience sleep regressions! If your toddler's routine has been shaken up, you might notice a drastic shift in their sleep. This could mean waking in the middle of the night in tears or crying out for you.
- Separation anxiety. Like with babies, separation anxiety is typical for toddlers, often peaking around 15 to 18 months of age. Separation anxiety can strike at night: When your toddler wakes to find they're all alone in their crib or bed, they may react by crying or screaming hysterically. As disruptive as this can be to everyone's sleep, this is a phase your child will grow out of with time.
- Illness. If your little one is sick, they'll turn to you for comfort, no matter the time of day or night. Fevers, vomiting, ear infections, body aches, and congestion can all wake your toddler suddenly, causing them to scream or cry in the middle of the night.
What should I do when my baby wakes up screaming or crying hysterically?
It's very common for babies who previously slept well to suddenly start having problems, whether it's trouble falling asleep at bedtime or abruptly waking up during the night.
Starting at 6 months old, separation anxiety can cause babies to wake up crying more than once during the night. Don't be surprised if your anxious baby does this and wants only you – or only your partner.
Other common causes of night waking in previously good sleepers include illness or an approaching developmental milestone. In those cases, there are a couple of things to try, in addition to treating anything that's making your sick baby uncomfortable.
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First, make sure that your little one is getting enough sleep in general. It may seem counterintuitive, but overtired babies are more likely to have trouble settling down at bedtime and staying asleep through the night. So be consistent about putting your baby to bed for naps during the day and getting them to bed at a reasonable time in the evening.
When your baby wakes up during the night, be soothing and calming, but boring. Let them know that everything is okay, but that it's time to sleep. Stay with them until they're calm, but keep the conversation to a minimum and the lights dim. It may take a few nights or even a few weeks to get back on track, but the closer you stick to your baby's regular sleep routine, the sooner the problem will be resolved.
Keep in mind that it's developmentally appropriate for younger babies to wake frequently throughout the night. While older babies who are gaining weight and developing typically don't need to breastfeed or take a bottle overnight, that doesn't mean they'll sleep soundly all night long. The goal is for your baby to eventually fall back asleep after waking, but it may require time and consistency before your little one reaches this milestone.
What should I do when my toddler wakes up screaming or crying hysterically?
If your toddler was previously sleeping soundly but begins to wake up upset during the night, there are a few ways you can help soothe them so they can fall back asleep.
If your toddler is screaming because of a night terror, you can comfort your child, but don't try to wake them up. It's common for children having a night terror to resist comfort or appear confused or disoriented. The best thing to do is let the night terror run its course while keeping them safe. If they try to climb out of bed, it's best to keep them there using gentle restraint. Since night terrors are often related to being sleep-deprived, remain committed to a consistent sleep schedule even when things get rocky so your little one can get plenty of sleep.
Your toddler may also be having bad dreams. Their imagination is developing, and they can't help but carry this over into their sleeping world. A few moments spent soothing them should do the trick. Stay with them until they fall back to sleep if they ask you to. Don't worry if they don't want to talk about the dream. Sometimes nightmares aren't about anything definitive, just a scary feeling.
Other common causes of night waking in previously good sleepers include illness, separation anxiety, or a looming developmental leap. In those cases, there are a couple of things to try. First, make sure that your child is getting enough sleep in general. It may seem counterintuitive, but the less sleep your child gets, the more likely they are to have trouble settling down at bedtime and staying asleep through the night. So be consistent about putting them to bed for naps during the day and getting them to bed at a reasonable time in the evening.
As with babies, toddlers may need to be soothed and comforted before they can fall back asleep. Go to your little one and let them know things are okay, but avoid chatting too much or turning on the lights. It might take time, but consistently reinforcing their sleep routine will help them to get back to sleeping soundly at night.
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