The Science on Why Babies Cry Before Sleep (and Solutions)

There are a lot of parents who are clueless about what they should do with their baby crying every night before going to sleep. They might be extremely exhausted from taking care of their child all throughout the day and are ready to fall asleep at night, however, their baby might not be on the same side as them.

Babies cry because it is their most effective way to communicate, with different cries for various issues. Learning those cries takes time, practice, and a lot of trial and error.

In this article, we are going to talk about why your baby cries before going to sleep. Now, it’s a huge topic, so let’s break it up into some sections. That way, you should be able to find the information you want faster.

An image of a baby boy crying in a crib before going to bed.

Why Do Babies Cry Before Sleeping?

Babies cry because it is one of their most reliable ways to communicate with adults before they’ve learned to talk. They can use crying to communicate their displeasure, tiredness, hunger, or other issues. It isn’t an adult’s favorite way to communicate, but it is effective.

While babies can cry anytime and anywhere due to a variety of reasons, here is a list of reasons that trouble a baby, mainly when falling asleep.

Reason #1: Period of purple crying

For a lot of babies in the world, there seems to be nothing wrong with them. Despite that, they cry every evening. This is common enough in babies under 3 months old that it’s got a name: the period of purple crying.

Now, the good news is that babies will grow out of it. Over time, their bodies and brains will get used to the environment and natural sleep cycles. The crying will resolve – eventually.

Reason #2: Having a hard time sleeping at night

Being born is hard work, and shifting from a passive absorbing of nutrients from mom’s umbilical cord to having to eat and digest your own food? That can be hard, especially at or after bedtime.

Adjusting to all the things in life takes time. And sometimes? That adjusting means your baby’s going to cry. The child’s body will slowly adapt to it, and they’ll learn to self-soothe, too.

This is something that will take time for the baby to learn and adapt to. Focusing on healthy sleep habits may help speed that process up.

Reason #3: Feeling uncomfortable

If something is making a baby feel uncomfortable (or something makes them feel irritated), then they are going to cry.

Examples of these are:

  • During bedtime, when the baby can feel that the sleeping environment is not good enough to let them fall asleep.
  • When the baby is suffering from a cold or other illness.
  • The baby’s room has a too hot or unpleasant temperature.
  • Teething.
  • Tight clothing or underwear.
  • The baby that has pooped in their diaper.

Reason #4: Feeling lonely

Another reason why a baby cries during the nighttime has to do with his or her need for attention more than anything else. This neediness (and expressing the want to have social or physical contact by crying out loud) is one way for them to communicate with their parents that the baby is looking for them.

In addition to that, some babies tend to know that sleeping time means they won’t get to see their parents, which causes them to cry as well.

After all, it’s not until after 6 to 8 months old that a baby’s brain understands object permanence (object permanence = the fact that just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s obliterated from existence). So to these poor babies, no wonder they cry when you leave! They don’t know that you’re in the other room. To them, you’re just… gone.

Babies who are also exhausted during the day can find nighttime to be so unnerving due to the silence around them.

Babies could also cry as a way to ask for your presence when he or she has any illness, is hungry, or just wants to play before sleeping.

Reason #5: The baby is overtired

For adults, not having enough sleep can cause a person to be easily irritated, stressed, and even have difficulties with learning and has little to no motivation.

The same goes for babies. If they can’t get enough sleep, it can lead to a baby feeling exhausted all throughout the day and will be having difficulty settling at night.

There are times when you can obviously sense your baby is overtired, and there are times when these signs can be subtle. Here are some signs you should know if your baby is overtired:

  • Only takes shorter naps than usual.
  • Has less sleep at night.
  • Is acting more irritated than usual.
  • Can’t handle frustrations or pain.
  • Falls asleep anytime and anywhere.

Keep in mind that even irritated and overtired babies should eventually be able to calm down or fall asleep. Babies who can’t stop crying may need to see a doctor, especially if you’re at all concerned or that parenting instinct says to get help.

Reason #6: Sensory overload

A baby that lives in an environment that is too bright, too busy, has lots of active television or cell phone screens, toys everywhere you look, or even uncontrollable crying can be too much to handle.

This can result in overstimulation of the baby’s senses and can lead to them having the urge to fight sleep at night.

You can help this by making things calmer, especially just before bedtimes (or nap times).

Reason #7: Sleep regression

There is no doubt that it is frustrating when your little one (who is so gentle and obedient when it is sleeping time) suddenly has difficulties sleeping at night or is waking up crying in the middle of the night. This can be a sign of sleep regression.

Sleep regression is common in almost all babies around the world and there is no need for parents to be worried about this. Usually, this happens for a short period of time only. However, the exact duration for a baby to have sleep regression depends on what causes it, and it can vary from baby to baby.

Reason #8: Baby starts teething

Another common reason why babies cry before sleep is that they are in the process of physical development or teething. The appearance of teeth in a baby is usually stronger during the night, which then causes babies to experience so much unbearable pain that he or she cries so loudly during the night.

At around 6 months old, most babies get their first tooth. However, not all babies experience teething at the same time. Some infants as early as 3 or 4 months old have their teeth appear by that age, while other babies might have to wait to be 1 year old to have their first teeth erupt.

My oldest didn’t get his first tooth until he was 15 months old, and then he got all his teeth within 2 weeks. It sucked. Neither of us slept well during those two weeks.

Reason #9: Separation Anxiety

All babies love to be touched or held. Being held is to be reassured that you are right there by their side. For that reason, settling on your baby on his or her own bed can be a little difficult for them. Your baby then cries because he or she misses your touch and your attention, and your baby is letting you know about it through crying.

Separation anxiety is natural in your baby’s developmental phase. And you do not have to worry about it as it is normal for babies, although it can be a little bit distressing.

All babies are also learning object permanence while in this phase (at about 6 to 8 months old). They begin to realize that people, as well as things, exist even if they cannot see them. And it is no wonder that your baby starts to cry when you attempt to put them down and leave them. They know you’re still there, but they still don’t want you to leave.

So now they don’t cry because you’re gone – they cry because they know you’re there and they want you back!

An image of a baby boy teething and looking uncomfortable.

How to Help a Baby that Cries Before Sleeping

Hearing your baby cry out loud before sleeping can sometimes be stressful. That is why I have listed below some tips on how you, a parent, can help your baby that cries before sleeping.

Tip #1: Relieve colic

If your baby fusses and sometimes cries for how many hours, then you might have a colic case on your hands. Colic is unexplained crying which usually lasts for more than 2-3 hours a day, or at least 3 days a week, and even more. It usually starts between 2 to the peak of the 6th week and is gone by 16 weeks.

It is true that all the babies cry, as well as babies with colic. Uncontrollable crying can happen at any time. However, it is more intense during the evenings when it is time to go to bed. Use these techniques to relieve colic in your baby:

Get out the gas

Your baby having excess gas is one reason which causes colic. Hold the legs of your baby up to his chest for a minute to get rid of the gas. While feeding, burping can help too.

Use gentle baby massages

Another helpful tool for your baby to feel relaxed is to do a massage. You can gently rub with love your baby’s back, belly, arms, and legs.

Tip #2: Try the 5 S’s of Soothing

There are some parents around the world that have their own different styles of soothing their baby, but here, I have listed the 5 S’s which are swaddling, side-lying or stomach position, shushing, swinging, and sucking.

Swaddling

Swaddling recreates the tight packaging in the womb which is also the cornerstone of calming a baby, lessening the startling as well as increasing the sleep. In addition to that, babies respond faster to the other 4 S’s of soothing and will let them stay soothed for a long period of time since their hands are wrapped.

To correctly swaddle a baby, wrap both the baby’s arms snug (straight at the side), but keep the baby’s hips loose and flexed. You can use a large square blanket, just to make sure that the baby’s head is not covered or making sure that the swaddle is not too loose which can result in the blanket unraveling.

Take note that the babies should only be swaddled when fussing or going to sleep, as this can cause discomfort to your baby.

Pro tip: if you need to learn how to swaddle, find a nurse who works in OB/GYN, labor and delivery, or in a pediatric setting. They are pros at swaddling and can teach you to swaddle, too.

Super-pro tip: have them teach your spouse or partner instead of you. My husband became a pro swaddle (even though I’m a pediatric emergency nurse). Swaddling our babies became his superpower, and it was amazing to watch him interact with our children.

Side-Lying or Stomach Position

Before your baby was brought out into this world, your baby has already spent most of his or her time facing sideways in a position called fetal which you can carry your baby the same way. In addition to that, the back part of the body is the only safe sleeping position. However, it can be the worst position when calming your fussy baby.

Also, you can also try the “football hold” on your baby as you nurse. Put your baby on the side, or in the stomach, or you can even try over your shoulder. With this S, you can see your baby look comfortable without any signs of crying in no time as she begins to sleep.

Shushing

Babies do not really need total silence in order to sleep comfortably. Because, while your baby is in your womb, the sound of your body’s blood flow is even louder than a vacuum cleaner.

The “shh” sound can be soothing to infants because it imitates the whooshing sound that surrounds your baby inside the womb. However, not all white noise is created equal.

A loud fan, as well as ocean sounds, can frequently fail to calm and soothe your crying baby because it lacks the rumble quality of the mother’s womb. One of the best ways to mimic these sounds is to have your baby listen to white noise. You can make the sound by yourself, or you can even use a radio in static tune, or your phone of white noise.

Just make sure to set the volume louder than your baby’s cries. Otherwise, your baby can’t hear it.

Swinging

Your baby’s life in the womb is like jello, it is jiggly! Try to imagine your baby inside your womb while you are going down the stairs, it is like, your baby is also moving around your womb.

While keeping your baby quiet by slow rocking, you need to use fast, rhythmic movements in order to soothe your crying baby. This movement is also called by parents as “Jell-O head jiggle.”

To do this movement, you should always support your head or neck, keep a tiny motion, and move back and forth with no more than 1 inch to prevent issues with Shaken baby syndrome. The more upset your baby is, the stronger the motion should be. However, always keep in mind that you should never, ever, shake your baby due to your anger or your frustration.

Sucking

The last S of soothing your baby to sleep is sucking. Sucking is like the icing on the cake when calming your baby. A lot of babies, usually those who are fussy, tend to find sucking relaxing and calming.

This last S works best after you have used the other S’s to calm your baby down to sleep.

Tip #3: Practice a good sleep routine with your baby

Having a colic baby likely means that your baby is a poor sleeper. And the more tired your baby gets, the more he or she will cry, and is more likely difficult to soothe back to sleep. For both of you to have a good night’s sleep, create a good sleep routine.

Before you get your baby to get ready for sleep, you should start with a warm bath with a taste of relaxing music. Turn off devices that have loud noises, dim the lights, and just let your baby sleep on its own. In addition to that, in order to help your baby sleep better at night, avoid letting your baby take a nap for more than 3 hours at a time during the daytime, even if it means you need to wake up your baby.

Tip #4: Rule out reflux

If your baby is still crying every time after you have done everything, your baby might have an underlying problem. Almost half of all babies experience reflux.

Reflux is a condition wherein the food that was consumed by your baby goes up from her stomach into your baby’s esophagus, and sometimes from her mouth then into your favorite top.

In most cases, symptoms of reflux are usually mild. You can relieve it by feeding your baby little by little as well as making her burp frequently. You can burp your baby every minute, not all at once after the baby has finished eating.

However, some infants persistently decline to eat the food they have eaten after spitting up, which results in your baby not gaining any weight. Continue burping your baby until he or she has finished eating in order to have a peaceful night without crying.

Tip #5: Try to avoid dairy products when breast-feeding

It might be hard for some mothers to stop eating cheese and ice cream. However, if you are a breastfeeding mom, you could see a big difference when you stop consuming dairy products.

Some studies I’ve read show that when a mother removes cow’s milk from her diet, then babies with colic can greatly improve. You can try it for a week or so to know if it is worth it, especially for those who have milk allergies or tolerance from their family history.

In addition to that, if you have noticed that when you are using cow’s milk for your baby, and there are signs of allergies, I highly suggest you consult your pediatrician about your baby’s allergies to know what needs to be done next.

Note: some babies who have a sensitivity or allergy to dairy products may grow out of them. Be sure to consult your pediatrician.

My oldest boy had a mild sensitivity to milk, but he grew out of it. Then we found he had a tree nut allergy, but that’s a different story.

Tip #6: Go outside

The last way on this list of how to help your baby who is crying before sleep is to head outside of your house. Same as the dog is the man’s best friend, mother nature is also your baby’s best friend.

The whooshing of the wind blowing on this cold night and the swishing of the leaves blown by the wind may remind your baby of the months he or she has stayed inside your womb. Or you can just head outside to distract your baby.

Having fresh air can help the both of you to stay calm and just forget for a while the problems inside your home and just be amazed how great our mother nature is.

Do Most Babies Cry Before Sleep?

Many babies have a few tears at bedtime. There are a lot of babies out there that cannot sleep without having at least a little cry first. However, not all babies cry before sleeping, depending on their age and temperament.

A few tears can be normal when it is time to go to sleep or when a baby wakes up at night. Usually, these tears don’t last too long, unless you’re specifically doing a cry-it-out sleep training method. Then, the tears can last up to 2 hours a session over the course of a week.

Furthermore, some babies are susceptible to sleep problems during the second half of the baby’s first year. There are some babies that cry all night long and then stop when their mother enters the room.

This is why focusing on healthy sleep habits and routines is important, as it’ll help your baby (and you) feel more confident at bedtime, even if there are a few tears (intentional through sleep training or not).

An image of a mother while swaddling her newborn baby with white cloth.

Key Takeaways and Next Steps

Parenting is all of the emotions, and they’re all dialed up to a 10. So it’s not easy when the baby cries, as we’re already on edge as parents (especially when we’re new parents). That’s normal, so please don’t feel bad for feeling very normal feelings!

Instead, keep reading these articles and know that we’re rooting for you. We’ve got all sorts of articles here to support you and give you the knowledge and reassurance you need to parent with confidence – and to get enough sleep.

So to help you get enough sleep, make sure you give this article a read next: Can You Sleep Train During a Regression? Regressions happen, and it’ll be good to know what you can realistically expect during the next one!

Cite this article as: “The Science on Why Babies Cry Before Sleep (and Solutions).” Sleep Training Kids, 3 May 2022, sleeptrainingkids.com/the-science-on-why-babies-cry-before-sleep-and-solutions/.

Resources

When learning about parenting or sleep training techniques, it’s important to learn from a wide variety of reputable sources. These are the sources used in this article and in our research to be more informed as parents.

  • Jennifer Kelly Geddes. “How to Get Your Baby to Stop Fighting Sleep.” What to Expect, 29 Mar. 2022, www.whattoexpect.com/first-year/sleep/baby-fighting-sleep.
  • Karp, Harvey. “The 5 S’s for Soothing Babies.” Happiest Baby, 8 Mar. 2022, www.happiestbaby.com/blogs/baby/the-5-s-s-for-soothing-babies.
  • NCT (National Childbirth Trust), 13 Feb. 2022, www.nct.org.uk/baby-toddler/crying/why-does-my-baby-cry-when-i-put-them-bed.
  • Whitman, Stacy. “Best Ways to Soothe a Crying Baby.” Parents, 9 Oct. 2014, www.parents.com/baby/sleep/issues/best-ways-to-soothe-a-crying-baby24/.

By Kimberly C. Starr, RN BSN

I’m a ginger-haired nurse (RN, BSN) who loves getting enough sleep to be a functional parent to my four wonderful kids - who are even more wonderful when they’ve gotten enough sleep, too.