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Why Do Children Wake Up Crying?

by Amber Keefer, studioD

Kids wake and cry during the night for many reasons. How you respond to a child who wakes up crying changes as she gets older. Although all children cycle between the stages of light sleep and deep sleep throughout the night, there could be a problem if your child wakes up frequently or has trouble falling back to sleep, states the University of Michigan Health System.


Illness often is the reason why children wake up crying in the middle of the night as pain and discomfort can disrupt sleep. Besides colic, teething and ear infections, the symptoms of other health conditions can awaken a child. In an article for Seattle Children’s Hospital, pediatric sleep expert Dr. Craig Canapari explains that obstructive sleep apnea, acid reflux and asthma are common medical problems that can interfere with a child’s sleep. Dr. Canapari notes that nighttime awakenings are a problem if they occur several times throughout the night, last for more than a few minutes or affect how well your child functions in the daytime.

Bad Dreams

Dr. Deborah Lin-Dyken, who researches pediatric sleep disorders, points out that for a toddler who doesn’t yet understand the difference between what’s imaginary and what’s real, a dream can be really frightening. The BabyCenter article suggests reassuring your child but don’t make him talk about the dream if he doesn’t want to. While you may have to stay with your child for a few minutes until he falls back to sleep, not all children wake up fully after dreams and will go back to sleep themselves. If night terrors awaken your child, he will be disoriented and may not want you to comfort him. Although he may look like he’s awake, he’s not. Don’t say anything or try to wake him fully. Just stay near until the night terror passes to make sure he’s OK.


Recent changes in your child’s life can increase stress and cause anxiety that interferes with her sleep. Stress in the family, a new sibling in the household or problems at preschool can cause stress that leads to sleep disturbances. Some kids simply are afraid of the dark and afraid of sleeping alone. Others are afraid of being separated from their parents at night, causing fear and anxieties that lead to bad dreams and problems sleeping. Being afraid at night is common among children, especially younger children who are still developing emotional coping skills. Daily stresses as well as a child's temperament and stage of development can each contribute to nighttime fears, notes Dr. Gwen Dewar, founder of the Parenting Science website. Being sensitive to your child’s anxieties and fears, reassuring her and providing her with a sense of security can help her overcome her fear of the dark and being alone.

Doesn't Self-Soothe

Your baby may be a trained night crier if he wakes up and cries more than once throughout the night. By the time a baby is 4 or 5 months old, he should be able to sleep through the night without you getting up to feed him. Once your child is old enough for you to rule out hunger as a reason for his crying through the night, it might be that he hasn’t learned how to put himself back to sleep. If you always held or rocked him until he was asleep when he was a baby, he may still cry for you to help him get back to sleep when he wakes.

About the Author

Amber Keefer has more than 25 years of experience working in the fields of human services and health care administration. Writing professionally since 1997, she has written articles covering business and finance, health, fitness, parenting and senior living issues for both print and online publications. Keefer holds a B.A. from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and an M.B.A. in health care management from Baker College.

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