It’s 2:00 am and you’ve just drifted off into the most delicious, deep sleep of your life. And then there it is – the unmistakable sound of your 6 month old bawling his head off. It takes a split second before you realize where you are and what is happening.
If this seems like a familiar scenario, you should know that you’re not alone. Sleep deprivation is the most common symptom experienced by parents with babies. Studies show that nearly half the parents with children under the age of six months get roughly one to three hours of uninterrupted sleep a night, while mothers are more affected by the night waking.
The real question is: why do babies wake up crying and what can parents do about it?
Research shows that there are multiple reasons why your baby wakes up hysterical; understanding these reasons will help you identify which one applies to your baby in a particular situation. This in turn will help you address your baby’s needs and calm him down.
1. I’m hungry – feed me!
It seems obvious but this is a huge reason. Newborn babies typically need to feed every two hours and since they have no other way of communicating, they use crying to let us know they need to be fed.
Don’t worry; you won’t spend the rest of your life waking up in the middle of the night to feed your child! By the time they are approaching six months you can start to slowly wean them off night feedings.
2. Change my dirty diaper
Dirty diapers can make your baby feel extremely uncomfortable, disrupting her sleep and causing her to wake up upset.
Although you have no control over how much your little one fills up her diapers, you can use some simple tricks that will help your baby get a good night’s sleep despite her wet diaper. These include:
- Changing the baby’s nappy right before bedtime
- Using a well-fitting, super-absorbent diaper
- Wrapping your baby’s diaper in an extra layer to avoid getting her clothes wet
3. I feel really hot
Most parents tend to dress their babies in too many layers at bedtime, fearing that they may get cold at night. Over dressing the baby will result in him getting hot, hence disrupting his sleep. The right temperature is more on the cooler side – around 20 degrees Celsius.
In fact, research shows that avoiding over-layering your baby at night can be an important step in reducing the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
4. I want a hug!
Sometimes the answer to the question “Why does my baby wake up crying?” is quite straightforward. They simply want to be snuggled and held. By the age of six months, babies develop separation anxiety which can cause them to wake up multiple times at night feeling hysterical.
5. I'm overtired
An overtired baby feels too tired to sleep and cries and fusses a whole lot. When he finally does manage to sleep, he wakes up very soon afterwards and then finds it difficult to go back to sleep. Babies show signs and symptoms that they are overtired.
Why does your baby get over tired in the first place? Simply put, it’s when he stays awake longer than he should between nap time and before bedtime.
6. I don’t feel too good
It could be possible that the reason your baby is waking up crying is because he’s not feeling well. Take your baby’s temperature to see if he has fever. If he does, it’s best to contact your health provider on what you should do to make your little one feel better.
7. I'm colicky
Colic is when your otherwise healthy baby cries incessantly for no apparent reason. Your baby is colicky if he cries for more than three hours continuously or for three days of the week for a period of three weeks.
That is a LOT of crying to deal with! But don’t worry, having colic is not a disease and will not harm your baby in any way. Regardless, it can be an extremely tough time for parents to go through.
Have a look at some of the tips on how to help colicky babies sleep better.
What can you do to help your baby get better sleep?
Babies have something called the startle reflex – this is where their hands jerk and they feel like they are falling.
Swaddling your baby helps prevent their arms from jerking and hence stops them from waking up frightened and confused.
2. Feed right before bedtime
Hunger is the number one reason your baby wakes up crying. If you feed her right before bedtime, it will help her stay fuller for longer. This will allow you to get the much deserved, longer stretch of hours to sleep.
3. Shorten day time naps
This one can get a little tricky. Although you don’t want your baby to be overtired, you also don’t want that he’s sleeping too much during the day.
You need to strike a balance so that your baby is well rested but has also not overdosed on sleep such that it affects his night time sleep.
4. Bedtime Routine
This is the absolute best advice you will ever get about helping your baby get better sleep! Babies thrive on routine; it brings order and predictability to their lives that they very much crave.
A Research on bedtime routine was conducted with 405 participating mothers and their babies/toddlers. The results showed that having a consistent bedtime routine helped in improving the child’s sleep, continuity of sleep, reduced night waking and improved maternal mood.
The kind of bedtime routine you set up for your baby is entirely up to you. It should usually be about ten to fifteen minutes long and include activities that calm your baby and wind him down for the day.
5. Teaching baby to put himself to sleep
In the long run, one of the things that will help your baby get better sleep will be teaching him how to put himself to sleep. This is a process and it will take time; there are no quick fixes to this one.
Just like you teach your child to ride a bike, slowly and gently, in the same way you have to teach your little one good sleep habits. Babies are normally ready for gentle sleep training after the age of six months.
The best strategy to start off with is to get your baby drowsy (through feeding, rocking and cuddling) and then placing him in the crib while he’s drowsy but not yet asleep.
In this way, when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he will have learned the technique of putting himself back to sleep and will not need to cry out to you.
6. Being smart about when you change the diaper
If your baby wakes up in the middle of the night for a night feeding, it’s best to change the diaper first, then re-swaddle, and then feed her. If you change the diaper after the feeding it might cause her to lose the drowsiness; falling asleep after that might get harder.
7. Avoid rushing in…
When you hear you baby cry in the middle of the night, your first instinct is to rush to her side. Sometimes this can actually be disruptive to a baby’s pattern of sleep.
Lots of times babies wake up, babble a bit, cry a little and then go back to sleep in minutes, all on their own. At other times, they are crying while they are actually asleep!
It’s best to wait a minute or two outside their room and see if they settle back to sleep in that time.
In a nutshell
All parents will agree that perhaps the most excruciatingly painful sound to listen to is the sound of your baby crying (if it’s someone else’s baby then the sound is plain annoying!)
But be assured that your baby is simply doing what babies do best – and that is cry! There is nothing wrong with her and she is not at all in harm’s way.
A lot of parents (especially moms) have the tendency of blaming themselves if their baby is crying, feeling like they have failed in some way. It’s important to understand that the reason your baby is waking up crying – whether it’s a dirty diaper or its night feedings – is something that is simply not in your control. It’s a phase in the life of your little one and it will pass.
Try to implement some of the strategies discussed above to help your baby get longer, more restful sleep. Establishing consistent bed time routines, making sure your baby is well fed and slowly teaching him to put himself to sleep are all tried and tested sleep techniques that have worked for hundreds of thousands of parents. And hopefully they will work for you as well.