Sleep is an important factor in children’s development, so it is quite reasonable why many parents are taking a closer look at the quality of their child’s sleep. What if you often see your toddler crying in sleep? Is it something that normally happens, or it a serious sleep problem to be concerned about? Let’s talk more about why toddlers may cry in their sleep, and how we can help solve any issues that may be present.
Is A Toddler Crying In Their Sleep Normal?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Sleep Medicine, toddlers aged 1 to 2 years usually need 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day. This may consist of daytime naps and nighttime sleep. It may sound pretty surprising, but toddlers and young children need to sleep this long for their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Many babies can sleep through the night by 6 months of age, but of course, not every child is able to do this while they are so young (as much as we wish they would!) Children may not learn how to sleep through the night until toddlerhood, and this can lead to a number of waking episodes at night.
The sleep cycle of babies and toddlers is normally shorter than adults. They can complete one cycle of sleep for approximately 60 minutes from the moment they fall asleep. Adults typically take around 90 minutes before completing a sleep cycle and shifting to another one. It is also normal for both adults and children to get partially awake as they shift from one sleep cycle to another. It happens unknowingly, or may be partially remembered. We often use this transition time to roll over, fix our pillow, or stretch our arms and feet at night.
As a result, babies and toddlers may wake more frequently during the duration of their sleep. Some toddlers may cry, or you may have encountered your toddler whining in sleep shortly before getting back to sleep. However, this doesn’t mean that they are completely awake or they are crying on purpose. Instead, for a toddler crying in sleep but not waking, it is highly possible that he is just shifting from one sleep cycle to another. In this case, toddlers crying in sleep may simply need reassurance that everything is okay before going back to sleep again.
In a way, this is quite similar to how we operate as adults! If our minds and bodies feel that everything is alright, we go back to sleep between sleep cycles without even remembering that we ever woke up. However, if something is off – we need to pee, there’s a strange sound coming from the other room, etc. we awaken further to investigate.
Possible Reasons Why Toddlers Cry During Sleep
While many toddlers can sleep through the night, they may also have occasional disruption in their usual sleeping pattern, so they end up waking and crying in the middle of their sleep. Some factors that may disrupt your toddler’s sleep are the following:
Many toddlers wake in the middle of the night for a late-night feed. This is pretty common, especially when it happens around the time when growth spurts are experienced. During this time, toddlers wake more often to feed because they feel hungrier than usual. Even toddlers who have been sleeping through the night can get back to waking and crying to ask for a feed.
Don’t worry, increased hunger in time for their growth spurts are a normal part of their development and they can outgrow it soon.
Toddlers may also cry in the middle of their sleep due to the sensation of wetness from a soaked or leaking diaper. A wet diaper, clothing, or beddings may disrupt your child’s sleep and make them feel irritated. Overly soaked diapers can also lead to diaper rash, which can be itchy and irritating for your toddler, leading to crying episodes at night. So if you notice your toddler crying suddenly in sleep, then it may be wise to check if she needs a diaper change.
Sometimes, toddlers may cry in their sleep to send the message that they are not comfortable. Some situations like teething, extremely cold temperatures, and uncomfortable clothes may produce sudden discomfort that can disrupt your toddler’s sleep.
Crying episodes while sleeping may also be aggravated by illnesses. For example, common colds can cause ear pain and stuffy nose that can interrupt your toddler’s normal breathing. Pain, difficulty in breathing, fever and other related symptoms of an illness may be possible causes of toddler crying in sleep suddenly at night.
Sleep problems (nightmares and night terrors)
In some rare cases, toddlers cry frequently at night due to a sleep problem. Sleep problems like nightmares and night terrors can disrupt your child’s sleep and cause them to become frightened, scream or cry in the middle of their sleep.
Nightmares are scary or frightening dreams that can wake your toddler up in their sleep and make them afraid to sleep again or be let in their own room. These dreams happen during the REM or rapid eye movement stage of sleep. Oftentimes, nightmares can make a toddler restless and crying in sleep, with a memory of the scary figure or event that they have encountered in the nightmare.
On the other hand, night terrors happen during the deeper stage of sleep. In this case, the toddler may suddenly cry and scream, even get up and become restless, while still in the middle of their sleep. The crying episodes may last up to 30 minutes without fully waking the child.
The exact cause of night terrors is unknown, but it is deemed that the brain gets too excited in moving to a deeper stage of sleep. You’ll know it’s a night terror because the screaming or crying episode happens during the 1st to 2nd hour after your toddler falls asleep. They may shout, get up and seem to be awake, but your child won’t remember a thing that happened the next morning.
How To Soothe Toddlers Crying In Their Sleep
A toddler crying in sleep may eventually disrupt the sleep of the parents and other people in the household. For parents, crying is something that signifies an innate need for response, especially for young children, so it is not something to take for granted. That is why if you’re seeking ways on how to prevent or ease your toddler’s crying episodes, here are some tips that may help.
Assess the triggers and pattern of the crying episodes.
Checking what seems to be causing your child to cry at night will be helpful in finding ways to alleviate the problem. Is it simply due to hunger, a wet diaper or a cold environment? Or is he having a fever, struggles to breathe, or seems to have trouble falling asleep?
By doing this observation, you can plan of ways to deal with the problem beforehand like considering a more absorbent diaper or adjusting the room temperature.
Alongside, you may note down the patterns of your child’s crying episodes. Does it happen every night or just when your child is overtired? When is it most likely to happen?
These conditions can help you find an appropriate solution to your problem and will also be a good assessment tool when you’re going to consult a sleep specialist in the future.
Promote good sleep habits
In toddlers, sleep problems are often preceded by disrupted sleep patterns. In fact, night terrors are more prevalent among overtired toddlers. So making sure that your child receives consistent, quality sleep every night may help minimize the problem.
Babies and toddlers work best on routines, so if you have more or less, similar time and sleeping conditions every night, it may help your toddler relax and get to sleep better. Consistency is the key!
Observe for a couple of minutes before you intervene.
As mentioned, young children may cry or whine a bit before transitioning to their next sleep cycle, but this doesn’t mean that they are feeling bad or had a scary dream. If that’s the case, intervening prematurely may simply awaken your child and lead to more crying or difficulty in falling back to sleep.
So it may be best to wait for a minute or two and observe your toddler for a while. If he gets back to sleep on his own, you won’t need to do something about it because it was just a normal part of his sleep cycle transition.
Gently rub your toddler’s back or tummy to calm him down.
Sometimes, your child may simply need the reassurance that you are there to calm them down, so they can get themselves back to sleep. If your toddler is restless and crying for unknown reason, you may try giving him a gentle pat or back rub to let him know that you are by his side and there’s nothing to worry about.
Turn on a gentle light source to reassure that there’s no one to harm him.
A toddler who experienced a night terror or nightmare may become agitated and cry out of his unrealistic fears. Some children may see normal shadows as horrible monsters or even think that they are situated at a place other than their room.
If this happens, you may open a gentle light source, such as a bedside lamp, just to show that he is still secured within his room and what he thought was only a part of a bad dream.
It’s important to remember that in our own tired states, it is normal to become frustrated as a parent. However, we must remember that these fears are very real to them, and a little reassurance can go a long way.
Try dream rehearsal.
This technique involves telling your toddler that he is the writer of his own dreams and he can choose what will happen next to a frightening event.
For instance, you can tell your child that monsters can turn into a fluffy teddy bear or pillow, or that he can alter the color and shape of the dark shadows and make it glittery and colorful.
This way your toddler’s mind can be rehearsed that what may frighten him in his dream can end up to something enjoyable and most importantly, something that he can control.
Try dream feeding your toddler.
Toddlers who often get hungry and cry in the middle of the night may work well with dream feeding. Here, you’ll want to rouse your toddler a bit to feed one last time before you go to bed at night. Without fully waking him up, you can offer one last feeding, perhaps at around 10 or 11 in the evening to minimize the waking episodes due to hunger and help him sleep through the night. Since you will offer a feed right before you turn in for the night, this would mean more uninterrupted sleep for you too.
Gently waking your child just before a night terror is bound to happen.
Children with night terrors become agitated as they transition to a deeper stage of sleep. That is why some experts suggest to gently rouse the toddler before the predicted sleep terror occurs. This may help some children go through the transition more smoothly and minimizing the tendency to cry or scream.
When to seek medical help for a toddler crying in sleep
While there are lots of toddler crying issues that can effectively be managed at home, some may need assistance from a medical professional. You may want to contact your health care provider for a toddler crying in sleep all night or if your toddler keeps crying in sleep despite the relief measures that are taken. This way, your doctor can check for the signs of any underlying medical condition or sleep problem that may cause the crying episodes at night and form a care plan that is specifically made for your toddler.
It is typical for toddlers to cry in sleep as a means to communicate their physiological needs and as part of their transition from one sleep cycle to another. However, if you seem to be bothered and think that something is wrong, you can always seek medical opinion to help rule out an illness or sleep problem that may exist and assist you in dealing with the crying episodes more effectively.
This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or licensed medical professional before making any medical decisions.