The fact that your baby is crying at night can be worrying and challenging for more reasons than one. As well as the obvious frustration you might feel when your little one simply won’t settle down and you can’t figure out what’s bothering them, it’s normal for parents to feel a mix of emotions ranging from helplessness to shame.
In truth, crying babies have a special way of unnerving new parents and unless you’re armed with some knowledge about why it’s happening and how you can stop it, it can be incredibly stressful.
In this blog, we outline the major reasons from A to Z that your baby might be crying at night, in the hope that even if you can’t employ one of our suggested tips, you’ll at least have a better understanding of the many various causes and triggers of your little one crying.
Understanding Different Types of Baby Crying
Babies cry for many reasons as it's one of the only ways young infants can communicate with their parents. If you start to think about it as your baby's way of simply “talking” to you, then it can sometimes help you to feel less disconcerted when they suddenly break out into tears when you think you’re doing a great job.
A cry is a way to capture your attention and let you know that they need something or that they are having a difficult time, for one reason or another. The job of the parent is not to stop crying (that would be impossible). Instead, parents must learn to find quick and effective ways to interpret cries and give their little ones what they need to settle down themselves.
So, What Are the Different Types of Crying?
While it’s hard to lump everything into specific categories, below are a few ways to organize the different reasons for crying. Some can be solved with simple solutions while others might require a more long-term strategy for resolving.
Crying when they need something specific
These cries signal to you (as adults) that your little one needs assistance with something specific. It could be as simple as filling their bellies with more milk or giving them a toy or item that they love.
Crying when they’re in pain or discomfort
Sickness or other causes of pain will undoubtedly make your baby cry. They’re not necessarily looking for you to fix the situation right away, but they want you to know that they’re suffering and need your help.
Crying when they want comfort
Babies want to be surrounded by their parents as much as possible. While it's not healthy to attach your baby to your hip 24/7, their crying could be a sign that they just need a few more cuddles.
Equally, they could be crying because they miss the comfort and coziness of the womb and their current sleeping arrangement or clothing is leaving them feeling a bit “out of sorts”. If so, consider trying sleeping baby suits like the Zipadee-Zip!
Learn more about what different cries mean in our blog: Why is My Baby Crying at Night? Different Baby Cries and What They Mean
What Is Colic?
The term colic is used for babies who cry when there’s no apparent reason for doing so. Excessive crying may continue in waves for several hours, days, or even weeks. If your doctor can’t identify anything wrong with your baby, it may just be a colic crying phase that they will eventually grow out of.
Strangely, everyone agrees that colic exists but the cause for it is still mostly unknown. Some doctors think it's a kind of stomach cramp that all babies experience, but some worse than others. And these constant crying sounds might be your baby communicating to you that they’re feeling distressed.
As the stomach of a baby is incredibly sensitive, it could be that certain triggers like meals and gas will cause a sudden wave of stomach pain. Whatever the reason is, colic can be incredibly stressful as it doesn't leave parents much room for doing anything about it.
If your doctor has suggested colic as the cause for your baby’s crying, we recommend doing what you can to relieve any and all other sources of discomfort impacting your baby and trying your best to calmly wait for the colic storm to pass.
If your doctor can’t identify anything wrong with your baby, it may just be a colic crying phase that they will eventually grow out of.
The A-Z of Common Reasons for Crying and Suitable Solutions
While it's almost impossible to cover every single possible reason your baby will wake up crying at night, we’ve rounded up some of the most common causes you should know as a parent.
Anxiety can disrupt sleep and trigger crying in different ways. The first is that your baby might be suffering from separation anxiety or a lack of human comfort, which is completely normal for really young infants. With too much time away from their parents and without the ability to sleep or even rest independently, they may end up crying simply because you’ve left them alone with their feelings for too long.
Equally, it’s possible that babies are picking up on the anxiety of their parents. If you’re stressed out, exhausted, or concerned about something, babies are intelligent enough to pick up on this and may not be able to settle until you yourself have found a way to relax.
Also, about 1 out of 10 women in the United States reported symptoms that suggest they experienced an episode of major depression in 2019, according to a study by the CDC.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out, it’s important to get the support you need from those around you if possible. You’ll have a much harder time relating to your baby and soothing them if you’re not feeling great yourself.
Check with your doctor that your child doesn’t have any common allergies. One of the most common causes is cow’s milk allergy that can cause your little one great discomfort after a feeding. A simple adjustment in their diet should do the job here.
While the smell alone will probably be your first indicator of a well-needed diaper change, your baby might be crying because the situation has gone unnoticed for too long. This can be enough to make babies feel uncomfortable and unsettled when it’s time to eat, sleep, or relax. A quick diaper change before feedings can make them feel much calmer and ready for cry-free sleeping.
Some experts believe that gas isn’t as large a cause of crying as some say, however, it’s no doubt that infants have immature and sensitive tummies and having gas might be quite unpleasant for them. When they’re crying out in hunger before a feed, this can also increase the amount of air in their stomachs, making them more vulnerable to gas. A few solutions for relieving gas are:
- Try shorter and more frequent feedings
- Try an infant massage on your baby’s tummy to relieve gas pressure
- Burp your baby during and after a feeding
Getting your baby's feeds right can be the key to preventing your baby crying at night so much. As infants have tiny stomachs, they can’t eat too much at once and must be topped up every few hours to be satisfied. It’s completely normal for babies to wake up at night because they’re simply hungry again.
However, the solution is more complicated than simply feeding your baby when they start crying. The trick is to feed them before they even know they’re hungry and avoiding the crying phase altogether. This can stop frenzied uncontrollable crying related to hunger and will sustain your baby’s calm mood throughout the evening and night.
Smacking lips or sucking their fingers and fist is an earlier sign that your baby will need food than crying, but you can also create a useful feeding schedule every two to three hours to make sure they’re always full and content.
The Moro Reflex
All babies will experience the Moro reflex, also known as the startle reflex, which is a completely normal part of development. This natural reflex will activate when your little one is exposed to certain changes in their environment and things like sudden noises and movements.
We’re written extensively on how to reduce the effect of the Moro reflex so your child can sleep in our blog: Moro Reflex: How to Stop it so that your Baby can get a Good Night’s Sleep. However, for some quick tips, try to avoid the following:
- Moving your baby too quickly when they are asleep
- Making noises around your baby’s room
- Using technology near your baby
- Putting your baby in their crib when they are already fast asleep (try to do it when they’re drowsy)
So many things can make a baby feel uncomfortable it’s kind of crazy. Just try and imagine your state of mind on your most delicate of days and then times that by 10, with some increased sensitivity to light, sound and smells thrown in.
Don’t be surprised if your baby cries out a little if their sleeping environment isn’t comfortable enough for them to truly relax. You’re not going to know exactly what your baby needs to feel comfortable at first, but with time, you should be able to eliminate all the things that they don’t like, such as certain types of clothing or noises.
If you’re wondering exactly what you should be dressing your baby in to sleep, to stop them crying at night, take a look at our blog: The Ultimate Guide to Buying Baby Clothes Online.
Letting your baby get too tired can stop them from settling. It might sound strange but when your baby has passed a certain point and their level of tiredness is so extreme, the last thing they’ll want to do is sleep. This might also be made worse due to the amount of stimulation your baby gets when they’re awake for too long.
One thing you can try is making sure they have everything they need (food, comfy clothes etc.) and put them in a dark room with zero light or noise. This could help to calm down their senses and restore a sense of balance. You might also want to try some classic calming techniques like massaging your baby’s hands or singing them a lullaby.
When your baby has passed a certain point and their level of tiredness is so extreme, the last thing they’ll want to do is sleep.
A number of illnesses could be preventing your child from sleeping. Addressing the underlying issue might be what's needed when your baby is crying at night. Some common illnesses include:
- The common cold
- Respiratory syncytial virus
- Gastroenteritis (stomach bug)
Your priority should be to give them as much opportunity for rest as possible while their immune system battles whatever invader is causing trouble in their bodies. Remember, illnesses don’t mean that your baby has lost their ability to sleep properly and you should try to stick to their normal routine as much as possible so they don’t suffer from a sleep regression that’s hard to come back from.
Most childhood illnesses will disappear after a while, but if the issue goes on for too long or you suspect it’s more than just a common cold, it’s always worth visiting a professional who can advise you on the best course of action.
Too Much Stimulation/Excitement
Babies can sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the new things they experience each day and are much more sensitive to stimulation than adults. If you are exposing them to too much loud noise, TV, rowdy siblings or even just strong lights, this can prevent their bodies from achieving peace and calm when it comes time to sleep leading to your baby crying at night and baby insomnia.
If you want some insider tips on how to stop your baby from feeling overwhelmed by too much stimulation and excitement in the evening, take a look at our popular blog: How to Help My Baby Sleep — The Perfect Evening Routine.
Baby Not Crying - Is It Normal?
Whether your child used to cry and has suddenly stopped for an unusual amount of time, or if they have always exhibited a slightly delayed or subdued crying reaction to things, we understand if you feel a little puzzled and concerned.
One reason for this is that you may have simply gotten so used to your child crying that it feels strange to experience life without it. Equally, other babies, instead of crying, become upset and then tune out and don’t display much emotion at all.
Yet, an unresponsive baby that doesn’t respond to you, the environment, or sensory influences, might need help. If you’re concerned about this, always talk to your pediatrician who should be able to shed some more light on the situation with some basic response tests.
When to Call a Doctor
“My baby is crying and won’t stop” is probably the starting point from which many child doctors interact with parents when helping them to overcome various sleep-related issues and general ailments. And while you might feel silly resorting to a professional, they’re ultimately there to help you when you need it.
To give you and your doctor a bit more structure and context when taking on a crying problem together, consider the following criteria as reasons that justify contacting a doctor.
- Your baby looks or acts abnormal (including fevers) and is under 1 month (an incredibly vulnerable period)
- Parts of your baby’s body are swollen or bulging, in addition to the crying
- Your baby is vomiting while crying
- Your little one cries when you touch certain parts of their body (hands, arm) or place them in certain positions
- When crying lasts for more than 2-3 hours and carries on non-stop without any sign of why
- Your baby won’t drink anything for long periods of time
- You fear that a career or relative may have mishandled your baby leading to shaken baby syndrome
What Not to Do When Your Baby is Crying at Night
When your baby is crying excessively and you’re having a tough time knowing what to do, never feel stupid. The truth is that it’s a very difficult time for new parents and it’s normal to feel a number of emotions like fear, frustration, anger, doubt, and even shame.
Although it's not harmful in itself, crying or colic can take its toll on the relationship of couples and families too. It puts a terrible amount of pressure on new parents and excessive crying is also associated with overmedication of babies, postpartum depression, and shaken-baby syndrome.
So, it’s important to accept that this is a very hard time and don’t let anyone make you feel inadequate for not being able to stop your baby from crying at night. When you can, speak to family members and other parents and share your concerns rather than bottling them up. You might get a few useful tips, but at the very least, you’ll understand how this is something that all parents have struggled through to some degree.
What is Shaken Baby Syndrome?
No matter how frustrated you feel, you must never shake your baby. This shaking can move their head violently and can cause brain damage. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, Shaken Baby Syndrome (also known as Shaken Impact Syndrome) usually occurs when a parent or other caregiver shakes a baby out of anger or frustration, often because the baby will not stop crying.
Babies have very weak neck muscles that cannot fully support their heads, which are proportionately much larger than their bodies. Protecting their neck area is crucial and imparting this knowledge to anyone who handles your baby (despite how obvious it might seem) is important.
If you feel like someone has mishandled your baby in any way, whether intentionally or accidentally, always see a doctor straight away.
Final Words of Encouragement
Remember that both you and your baby have feelings. Some of the solutions in this blog might be useful, but if they’re not, don’t be disheartened. Your baby crying at night isn’t some kind of puzzle that only the best parents can solve.
Often, reasons for crying are wrapped up in a whole complicated bundle of emotions and you can’t expect your infant baby to respond rationally to your efforts to soothe them.
Equally, your own feelings and emotions as a parent, which can be all over the place during early parenting stages, can be quite understandably hard to control. How can you calmly rock your baby to sleep if you’re feeling anything but calm after zero hours of sleep? This may be the inadvertent cause of your baby crying at night.
Again, this is completely normal and until your little one has matured emotionally, and your family’s routine and balance has been restored back to something resembling pre-baby life, crying and other emotional responses are to be expected now and then, whether it’s you who’s doing the crying or your infant baby.