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Why do toddlers cry in their sleep and how can you help them?

Learn about the behavior of crying while sleeping

Have you ever woken in the middle of the night to your toddler’s cries, only to discover, after you’ve frantically run to see what’s wrong, that they are still asleep? If so, you’re not alone. If your typical happy-go-lucky toddler is suddenly crying out in their sleep, it can be very confusing for parents who are worried that something may be wrong or troubling their child. Toddler behavior is difficult enough to figure out when they’re awake, much less when they’re sleeping!

The good news is that toddlers crying in their sleep is a normal part of their development and doesn’t mean there’s anything troubling your child. In fact, this behavior can have a variety of different causes. Keep reading to learn some of the reasons why toddlers cry in their sleep and if there’s anything you can do to help prevent it, so everyone keeps getting a good night’s sleep.

Sleep patterns

Toddler girl sleeping in bed

Because babies and toddlers are still growing and developing at a very fast rate, they haven’t yet developed a consistent sleep pattern. In some cases, when babies or toddlers cry out in their sleep, it’s simply an indication of them transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next. If this is the case, they will more than likely settle down on their own.

Parents magazine also notes that toddlers crying in their sleep is almost the same as if children were to talk in their sleep. This is typically nothing to worry about, but being overtired can bring it on, so they suggest ensuring there is a consistent bedtime that allows for ample rest.

Nightmares and night terrors

Toddler girl having a night terror

Sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo, MD, an associate professor of sleep medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, explained to WebMD that parents may need to consider nightmares or night terrors as the reason for their children crying out in their sleep. “The first thing you can do is to look for any physical problems that may be disturbing their sleep,” Pelayo suggests to parents who are dealing with toddlers crying in their sleep. “If there doesn’t seem to be anything physical causing them to wake and stir,” he says, “then it’s time to talk about the nightmares. Tell them that they are always safe and that nightmares and dreams are like paintings and drawings, meaning that they can paint a nice picture or scary picture.”

Night terrors may be more disturbing for a toddler. “Night or sleep terrors are not nightmares,” Pelayo added. Children will have no memory of a night terror while they will often remember a nightmare and wake to realize that it wasn’t real. KidsHealth writes that toddlers who have experienced night terrors are sometimes overtired, ill, or stressed, taking a new medicine, sleeping in a new environment or away from home, not getting enough sleep, or having too much caffeine.

Other influences

Toddler being comforted in bed after nightmare

Sometimes toddlers cry in their sleep for any number of reasons. A toddler may cry during the night if he’s hungry, which can happen if he is going through a growth spurt or he simply decides to not eat much during that day. A soiled diaper may also cause a toddler to cry in his sleep simply out of discomfort, as can being too hot or too cold.

Checking the room temperature and dressing the toddler appropriately may stop him from waking in those circumstances. Overstimulation can also cause a child to cry during sleep, so creating a soothing and calm sleep environment is key. Maybe your toddler is feeling under the weather, and he’s crying during sleep as a result.

What can parents do?

Toddler sleeping

If your toddler cries during her sleep you should always check on her to ensure she’s safe. If you think your child is experiencing night terrors, experts suggest not trying to wake your child but simply waiting it out while ensuring her safety. Cadence Education does note that sleep regression is very common around 2 years of age, so sleep disruptions are often not something to worry about.

However, if you think your child is experiencing night terrors, she is repeatedly crying out in her sleep and you haven’t been able to determine a cause for it, you fear she may be in pain, or her sleep issues are affecting how she functions during the day, it may be time to contact your doctor. A sleep study can be done on children who are experiencing continued disruption of their sleep.

Parents also want to reinforce healthy sleep habits and a healthy sleep routine and can do so by helping to eliminate stress before bedtime, having a consistent bedtime routine, and being consistent with how they respond when their child cries. If you constantly react when a child cries at night, you may be inadvertently reinforcing the behavior.

Proper sleep is so important, not only for growing and developing toddlers but for parents who are on the go all day as well. If your toddler cries in their sleep, it’s not usually something to be worried about, but it’s important to see medical advice if the behavior worsens or persists.

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