Sleep routines are essential for babies, providing them with the consistency and structure they need to fall asleep easily and stay asleep longer. However, some babies cry during their bedtime or nap routine, leaving parents frustrated and unsure of what to do. Crying during the bedtime routine can occur for many reasons, from having negative associations with the crib, to separation anxiety, to scheduling issues. In order to stop your baby from crying during the bedtime routine, you first need to identify the source of the problem. In this blog, we will explore the reasons why babies cry during their bedtime routine and provide tips to help you minimize crying. We'll use the term bedtime routine to refer to bedtime and nap routines throughout this blog.
1. Your baby may be overtired due to insufficient daytime napping or being awake too long between naps and bedtime
Babies who are overtired may cry during their bedtime routine because they are too tired to settle down and fall asleep easily. Overtiredness (or acute and chronic sleep loss as it's called in the scientific literature) can result from having naps that are too short, being awake too long between the end of the last nap and bedtime, or not getting enough sleep on a daily basis.
To deal with this issue, you need to figure out how your child's schedule is off. Compare your child's schedule to our age-by-stage sleep schedule blog in order to determine what you might need to change. If you find that your child isn't getting enough daytime sleep compared to averages for his/her age, then work on increasing nap duration. We have a series of blogs on how to do this here. If your child is awake for too long before bed, then try to reduce your baby's awake time by shifting the timing of the last nap later, moving bedtime earlier, or both. Finally, if your child isn't getting enough sleep in general, then you may need to work on the underlying causes of insufficient sleep. In many cases, this will mean changing a baby's sleep associations. Our sleep class can help you figure out how to do that.
2. you may be expecting your baby to sleep too much, resulting in crib aversion
Some babies cry during their bedtime routine because they have negative associations with the crib. This often happens when parents have unrealistic expectations for a baby's sleep duration, which leads to babies spending a lot of time in the crib awake and unable to sleep, resulting in frustration. Many blogs and social media personalities suggest that babies should sleep for 12 hours overnight, and many parents will try to impose a 12-hour night sleep schedule on their babies, which can lead to a lot of frustrating time spent in the crib not sleeping. This can lead to a baby having a negative association with sleep and pre-sleep routines.
To deal with this issue, you should determine how much sleep your baby needs and adjust the schedule accordingly. By adjusting the schedule, you can ensure that your baby spends the appropriate amount of time in the crib and minimize frustration. Check out our age-by-stage sleep chart to identify more realistic sleep durations if you aren't sure how much sleep your child needs.
3. Your baby may have aversion to the crib due to ineffective or inappropriate sleep training
Of all the causes of bedtime crying, this is the hardest. Sleep training is ok to do as long as you implement a developmentally appropriate approach, ensure you are solving the right problem, have reasonable expectations for how much your baby can sleep, and understand when your baby might need to eat at night. Unfortunately, many parents begin a plan that either isn't developmentally appropriate (e.g., all night sleep training a baby under four months, nap and night sleep training at the same time) or that isn't the right fix for the problem (e.g., sleep training when the issue requires a schedule adjustment or medical intervention). As a result, we've encountered numerous cases of parents following the advice of an untrained consultant (note that the American Academy of Sleep Medicine does not endorse any sleep "certificates," they are meaningless) and leaving their babies to cry for weeks on end, with no resolution of sleep problems. Or, sleep improves, but bedtime and naptime crying persist. Obviously, this can be extremely stressful for you and your child.
Fixing this problem depends on where you are in the process. If you have been sleep training for a week or more and are seeing no progress or if your child's sleep seems to be getting worse, then stop sleep training. Speak with your pediatrician to identify the source of the problem before you do anything else. If your child's sleep improved with sleep training, but bedtime crying persists, then spend more time helping your baby settle into a drowsy state before transferring to the crib. This might require repeated rounds of picking up and resettling, but it's important to help your baby relax before falling asleep to break the negative associations. As long as you continue to put your child down awake, sleep should remain stable. You might also need to change your routine as described in #6 below.
4. your child may be in a phase of separation anxiety
Separation anxiety is a normal part of a baby's development and can occur between 6-24 months of age, with peaks at around 9 months and 18 months. Babies can also experience situational separation anxiety after travel or when a parent is away for a few days. Sometimes a child will have separation anxiety with one parent and not the other. Babies and toddlers who are experiencing separation anxiety may cry during their bedtime routine because they understand that the bedtime routine precedes separation from their parents.
To deal with this issue, you should modify your bedtime routine to provide more soothing during phases of separation anxiety. For example, you can hold and cuddle your child more, read an extra book, or sing an additional song to help soothe your child. In order to prevent a deeper regression, be sure to put your child down awake (if you've never done this, then check out our sleep training class for approaches on how to teach your child to fall asleep independently). If your child continues to cry with any intensity after you leave the room, it's ok to return, repeat the final steps of your bedtime routine, and put your child down again. You can go in to soothe your child as many times as needed until s/he falls asleep. If your child's anxiety is extreme, then it's ok to stay in the room as your baby falls asleep. You can gradually work on leaving the room once your baby's anxiety has subsided (this may take weeks or months).
If your child goes to sleep fine with one parent and not the other, then it's ok to have one parent in charge of sleep routines until separation anxiety subsides.
5. Your child may be uncomfortable due to teething, reflux, illness, or other issues
It's easy to forget that babies and young toddlers can have problems that aren't always obvious. If your child has done fine with your bedtime routine and then suddenly starts crying for no obvious reason, it's important to ensure that it's not due to physical discomfort.
To fix these types of problems, you'll need to determine the source of the discomfort and resolve it. First, check your child's mouth. Do you see or feel any swollen gums or teeth poking out? If so, then teething could be part of the problem. For more on teething issues during sleep and how to solve them, check out this blog.
Does your child cry when you lay him/her flat? If so, that could indicate that reflux or an ear infection is to blame because horizontal posture can amplify that type of discomfort. If you suspect that your baby has reflux, an ear infection, or other medical issue, then you'll need to work with your pediatrician to develop a treatment plan. You'll just need to make your child comfortable until you figure out how to solve the problem. Our blog on medical issues and sleep should help you figure out how to handle this until you've resolved issues with your pediatrician's help.
6. Due to colic or the issues above, your child's bedtime routine may now be associated with crying
Sometimes, making the adjustments described above will not prevent a child from continuing to cry during the bedtime routine. This is because sometimes a child will begin to associate the routine with crying, which means the crying persists even after the underlying problem is fixed. While we generally recommend that parents maintain very consistent bedtime and nap routines, this is a situation where it's not only ok to change the routine, you might need to change your child's bedtime routine to stop the cycle of crying. Remember, your bedtime routine is only helpful if it is a positive cue for sleep. If it's not working, change it! It can be difficult to modify a child's bedtime routine, so here are some suggestions for how to do it:
Change the order of the steps in the bedtime routine, such as feeding first and doing more active steps later or putting a sleep sack on at the end of the routine instead of the beginning.
Change steps in the bedtime routine, like singing a song instead of reading a book or doing a wipe down instead of a bath (note that a bath could be done earlier in the day and doesn't have to be part of the routine if it induces crying).
Do part of the routine in a different room, for example, changing into pajamas in the parents' room and then going to the nursery.
It's important to remember that each baby is unique, and what works for one may not work for another. Be patient, and keep trying different techniques until you find what works best for your baby.
If you're new to us, welcome! We hope you find our blogs helpful. We're moms with backgrounds in sleep medicine, public health, nursing, and behavior analysis (Ph.D. and master's level). Our passion is translating the scientific literature into actionable strategies that you can use to achieve better sleep.
As always, we are here to help. Let us know if you don't see a blog on an issue that you are facing by contacting us on social media or through email@example.com (note that while our goal is to help, we can't keep up with personal questions via e-mail. It takes away from our time with our own little ones). If you are struggling, then feel free to book a one-on-one consultation with us or check out our sleep class. We developed the class based on our work with parents and offer many different approaches to sleep problems. We have lots of positive feedback on the class and you can join our private Facebook group for extra support while taking the class.
Mindell, J.A. and Williamson, A.A., 2018. Benefits of a bedtime routine in young children: Sleep, development, and beyond. Sleep medicine reviews, 40, pp.93-108.
Kelmanson, I.A., 2012. Separation anxiety and bedtime resistance in eight-month-old infants. Early Child Development and Care, 182(11), pp.1455-1464.
Sadeh, A., Tikotzky, L. and Scher, A., 2010. Parenting and infant sleep. Sleep medicine reviews, 14(2), pp.89-96.
Bruni, O. and Angriman, M., 2015. Pediatric insomnia: new insights in clinical assessment and treatment options. Archives italiennes de biologie, 153(2-3), pp.144-156.