Why Your Baby Wakes Up Screaming from Naps – Causes & Fixes

It can be quite distressing to hear your baby wake up from naps with screams. 

This guide is intended to help you understand why this might be happening. 

We’ll discuss the common reasons, such as nightmares, teething pain, and sleep regression. 

In addition, we’ll provide tips on how to comfort your baby and create a consistent sleep routine. 

Finally, we’ll guide you on when it would be appropriate to consult a pediatrician. 

Through this article, we hope to equip you with the tools to handle and mitigate these challenging episodes.

Understanding Baby Sleep Cycles

The understanding of baby sleep cycles is crucial for both parents and caregivers, as it enables them to better meet the baby’s needs and to potentially improve the quality of their own sleep.

In the early months of life, babies don’t follow the adult sleep pattern of long periods of uninterrupted sleep. 

Instead, their sleep cycles are shorter and consist of alternating periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. 

During the REM stage, which is the phase of sleep associated with dreaming, babies might twitch, smile, suck, or appear to be looking around even with their eyes closed. 

During the non-REM phase, babies sleep more peacefully.

The sleep cycle of a newborn baby lasts about 50-60 minutes, and they spend about half of their sleep in the REM stage. 

This is quite different from adults, whose sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes with a smaller proportion spent in REM sleep. 

As babies grow, their sleep cycles gradually begin to resemble those of adults.

One of the reasons for babies’ frequent awakenings is that they transition from REM to non-REM sleep more often than adults. 

After a cycle ends, they may partially or fully awaken. 

These are natural transitions, but if a baby cannot self-soothe, they may require assistance from a caregiver to return to sleep.

Common Reasons for Waking Up Screaming

1. Nightmares

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that can cause a person to wake up feeling scared or upset. 

They can occur at any age, but are more common in children. 

Nightmares may be triggered by a variety of factors, including stress, trauma, or certain medications​.

2. Night Terrors

Night terrors, or sleep terrors, are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. 

They’re more common in children and can lead to waking up screaming. 

Unlike nightmares, individuals usually don’t recall the episode in the morning​.

3. Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. 

This can lead to a gasping or snorting noise and possibly waking up screaming due to the abrupt disruption of sleep. 

It’s more common in adults but can also occur in children​.

4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Individuals suffering from PTSD often experience nightmares or flashbacks of the traumatic event during sleep, which can cause them to wake up screaming. 

This is more relevant to adults and older children who have experienced a traumatic event​.

5. Nocturnal Panic Attacks

These are panic attacks that occur while a person is sleeping, causing them to wake up in a state of panic or fear, potentially screaming. 

They can occur in people who have panic disorder, but also in those without any psychiatric disorders​​.

6. Sleep-Related Eating Disorder (SRED)

While this condition might not directly lead to screaming, individuals with SRED might wake up in a state of confusion and possibly panic due to unusual nocturnal eating behavior, which could lead to vocal outbursts. 

This disorder is often associated with other sleep disorders like sleepwalking or restless legs syndrome​.

7. Fever or Illness in Infants

Babies may wake up crying or screaming due to discomfort from a fever or illness. 

This can be accompanied by excessive sweating which could be an indicator of an underlying condition like infection, heart disease, endocrine system disorders, or genetic disorders. 

How to Comfort a Baby Who Wakes Up Screaming

1. Respond Promptly

Respond quickly to your baby’s cries. 

This can reassure them that you’re there and ready to comfort them. 

Babies feel secure knowing their needs are being met, which can help soothe them back to sleep.

2. Keep a Calm and Comforting Environment

Ensure the room is dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. 

Use a nightlight if you need to see what you’re doing. 

Harsh lights can stimulate your baby and make it harder for them to fall back asleep.

3. Check for Basic Needs

Sometimes, your baby might be crying because they need a diaper change, they’re hungry, or their pacifier has fallen out of their mouth. 

Checking for these basic needs can often solve the problem quickly.

4. Offer a Comforting Touch

Hold your baby close to you, offering gentle strokes or pats. 

Skin-to-skin contact can be particularly soothing for babies. 

The sound of your heartbeat can also be a comforting presence that reminds them of being in the womb.

5. Use a Gentle Voice

Speak or sing softly to your baby. 

Hearing your voice can have a calming effect. 

Try lullabies or a simple shushing sound that mimics the noise they heard in the womb.

6. Implement a Bedtime Routine

A consistent bedtime routine can help signal to your baby that it’s time to sleep. 

This might include a bath, a bedtime story, a lullaby, and a feed. 

A routine can help them feel more secure and make it easier for them to fall back asleep if they wake up during the night.

7. Consider a Soothing Object

A small soft toy or blanket (once they’re old enough to safely have one in their crib) can provide comfort. 

This object can become a source of reassurance and familiarity for your baby, especially during the night.

8. Use a Pacifier

If your baby uses a pacifier, offer it to them. 

Sucking can have a soothing effect and can help your baby fall back to sleep.

9. Try Gentle Motion

Rocking, swaying, or a ride in the car can help soothe a baby back to sleep. 

The gentle motion is reminiscent of the motion they felt when in the womb.

10. Consult a Healthcare Provider

If your baby frequently wakes up screaming and it’s difficult to comfort them, or if they have other symptoms like fever or excessive sweating, it might be a good idea to consult with a healthcare provider. 

They can help rule out any medical conditions and provide guidance based on your baby’s specific needs.

Remember that it’s normal for babies to wake during the night and require comforting. 

However, if it’s happening frequently or you’re concerned, don’t hesitate to reach out to a healthcare professional.

Creating a Consistent Sleep Routine

A consistent sleep routine is a cornerstone of good sleep hygiene for babies. 

It helps to regulate their internal clock, or circadian rhythm, aiding in longer sleep periods and fewer nighttime awakenings.

The first step in creating a consistent sleep routine is to observe your baby’s natural sleep patterns and identify signs of sleepiness. 

These signs may include rubbing eyes, yawning, and becoming fussier. 

Once you identify these signs, you can begin to implement a predictable routine around the same time each day.

A routine might include activities such as a bath, a book, a lullaby, and then bed. 

The goal is to create a series of predictable, calming activities that signal to your baby that it’s time to sleep. 

It’s also beneficial to establish a consistent wake-up time and consistent times for naps.

Remember, the sleep routine should be flexible and adapt to the baby’s evolving needs as they grow. 

What works for a newborn may not work for a six-month-old. 

Patience, observation, and flexibility are key in creating a successful sleep routine.

When to Consult a Pediatrician

While it’s normal for babies to have disrupted sleep, there are times when it may be appropriate to consult a pediatrician. 

If your baby frequently has difficulty falling asleep, wakes up often during the night, snores loudly, breathes irregularly, or has excessive sweating during sleep, it might indicate an underlying health issue such as sleep apnea or other sleep disorders.

Moreover, if you notice a significant change in your baby’s sleep patterns or if your baby is consistently not meeting the sleep duration guidelines for their age, it would be advisable to consult a pediatrician.

Pediatricians can provide advice tailored to your baby’s specific situation and can rule out any potential medical conditions. 

They can also provide guidance on sleep training methods and can help address any parental concerns related to sleep.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs:)

Q1: My baby wakes up screaming but falls back asleep quickly. Should I be concerned?

A1: If your baby wakes up screaming but is able to quickly soothe themselves back to sleep, it may just be a part of their sleep cycle or a brief awakening. However, if it happens frequently or if your baby seems distressed and unable to go back to sleep, it may be worth discussing with a pediatrician.

Q2: Can the way I put my baby to sleep affect how they wake up?

A2: Yes, the way a baby is put to sleep can affect their sleep quality and how they wake up. Establishing a peaceful and consistent bedtime routine can help your baby associate sleep with comfort and security, which can lead to more peaceful awakenings.

Q3: How can I distinguish between normal and abnormal sleep behaviors in my baby?

A3: It can be difficult to distinguish between normal and abnormal sleep behaviors. Some level of fussiness during sleep is normal, but persistent, high-pitched screaming, difficulty breathing, or excessive restlessness could be signs of a sleep disorder or other health issue. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to consult with a healthcare professional.


In conclusion, there are several reasons why a baby might wake up screaming from naps, and most of them are part of normal child development. 

Understanding these reasons and knowing how to comfort your baby can make this phase easier for both of you. 

If your baby’s sleep continues to be disrupted or you’re concerned about their well-being, don’t hesitate to consult a pediatrician. 

You are your baby’s first and most important advocate, and your peace of mind matters.

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