Crying, Not Sleeping: How to Fix What’s Wrong

So your baby is crying not sleeping…and you may be crying not sleeping as well!  What’s wrong? Why won’t she sleep? This post will give you some explanations and strategies to help you through these tough moments with your new baby, and help you both get back to sleep.

The Three Reasons

The bad news is that there are fewer sounds that are more difficult to listen to than your own baby crying. There may be ancient biological reasons for this. In any case, once you hear that cry from your own baby, you’ll understand what I mean! The good news is that there are really only three basic reasons why your baby is crying: She’s hungry; she’s uncomfortable (for instance, with gas or a wet diaper); or she just needs to be held (and not just held, but held in a certain way; see below).


crying not sleeping
Sad Snowman

In any case, babies never stay awake crying for no reason. Come to think of it, no one cries for no reason! Even actors cry because they are getting paid to play a scene. With your baby, however, regardless of whether she is hungry, is uncomfortable, or needs to be held, the reason is basically the same: She needs something from you. It may be the case that babies have such piercing, plaintive, and just plain miserable cries precisely because that type of cry is likely to get a parent running to the crib. That’s the point: The baby knows instinctively that crying not sleeping because she needs something from you.


If two to three hours have passed since her last feeding and it’s about time for the baby to eat, her stomach may be waking he up. Generally, though, if a baby is crying from hunger, it’s because she has already spent several minutes giving you other cues that she’s hungry, such as stirring and rooting while possibly making cooing noises. If your baby has gotten to the point of crying, you’ve probably delayed too long to start the feeding. At this point your baby may be so frantic from hunger that it might prove difficult to calm her down. The paradox is that the baby may be too wound up to accomplish the very task she needs to do in order to calm down: eat! In cases like this, I recommend looking for a brief window of opportunity when the baby stops crying.

It’s important that while waiting you don’t become so wound up that neither the baby nor you can calm down enough to get her to feed! This may require a supreme act of self-control, but with practice you can get it done. The window of opportunity, when the baby is relatively calmer, is the time to introduce the nipple (human or otherwise) to the baby’s mouth. She may fuss and cry a bit, but eventually she’ll realize that there’s milk there and she’ll calm down the rest of the way.

What if she just fed? If much less than the usual interval has passed since the baby last fed and she had a good long feed at that time, it may be a mistake to try to feed her. Some mothers come to the mistaken conclusion that their own milk is not enough for their baby, so they try to supplement with formula at this point. Another downside to early feedings is that some rare babies may feed even when they are not particularly hungry. This may lead to overfeeding. An overfed baby is frequently gassy and spitty. Usually when you try to feed babies who are not really hungry, the problem is that they just wanted skin-to-skin attention; they will nurse for a few seconds and then calmly fall asleep. These are babies who weren’t hungry after all.

crying not sleeping
She needs a diaper change

Discomfort leads to Crying not Sleeping

Sometimes the baby will wake up and cry because she is feeling something uncomfortable. Many parents interpret these cries as being cries of pain. They probably are not. Cries of pain are more like the cries of shock and displeasure when the baby gets a needle prick. They could really hate the feeling of having a full diaper. Or maybe they hate being naked (or conversely, they hate being overly covered in clothes). Some babies cry because they don’t like the sensation of being bathed. Most of these cries are pretty easy to figure out, since the pattern gets established fairly early in life. I recommend going down a mini-checklist to discover why the baby is uncomfortable. Many parents check the diaper first. Then they look for clues to see if the baby has a gas bubble or is struggling to make a poop. These babies will have stomachs that feel fuller than normal or will turn red, strain, and appear to bear down.

Or… the baby could have colic

crying not sleeping
even smileys cry sometimes

Colic could have a several posts devoted to it. I’d say colic is your answer if you’ve eliminated all the other possibilities we’re discussing here. It’s a subject well worth bringing up with your pediatrician.

The Brazilian Cure for crying not sleeping

The tea of choice in Brazil is erva doce (“ sweet herb”). Americans know sweet herb as anise, the principal ingredient in licorice. Having tasted erva doce, I can attest that it tastes nothing at all like licorice. Some Brazilians prefer chamomile, but erva doce remains the national favorite. Brazilian moms make a dilute batch of tea and serve it one ounce at a time in a bottle at room temperature.  Because I want to make sure the baby is getting enough breast milk or formula, I counsel parents to limit the tea dose to one ounce, no more than three times per day.

The American Cure

crying not sleeping
Sad Jedi

Second, I employ a trick I learned from a nurse. It turns out that sugar-water is a calming agent, even as a pain-reducer. In babies younger than two months, sugar appears to act as a laxative, a calming agent, and an all-purpose, fussy-baby remedy. I recommend adding one level teaspoon of sugar to the ounce of tea. If that sounds sweet, it is. Treat sugar-water like medicine: small amounts (ounce at most) and not very often.

I just want to be held. Is that so wrong?

Once hunger and discomfort have been eliminated from the checklist, there remains the baby who is crying not sleeping because she wants to be held.   The baby who wants to be held seldom wants to be simply held. Usually she will only accept being held when you are standing up. You figure this out quickly when you try to sit down. But it can be tougher than this. Not only does the baby want you to hold her while you’re standing up, but you need to walk— and this usually happens between the hours of 2: 00 a.m. and 4: 00 a.m.

crying not sleeping
It’s alright to cry

No one really knows why this kind of crying not sleeping happens, but everyone has his or her own ideas. My personal theory is that babies have an innate need for human contact. For most of human history babies enjoyed almost uninterrupted contact with their mothers. If that contact was broken briefly the baby was usually okay. After all, mom needed to go to the bathroom, eat, and bathe. But eventually the baby needed the care, comfort, and protection of a pair of arms, so she cried to get it back. The fact that a baby needs to be held while a parent is standing up and walking might be a legacy of our mobile ancestors, who were often on the move and carried their infants strapped tightly to their bodies.

Bad Stuff

Some cries are different from the cries described above. In these cases, the baby really does appear to be in pain, as though she is getting shots, without apparent reason. In such cases, there are some particular signs worth looking for. I recommend removing all the baby’s clothes and examining her carefully. Pay particular attention to the fingers and toes. What you’re looking for are “hair tourniquets.” A hair tourniquet occurs when a piece of hair, either from the baby or someone else, becomes wrapped tightly around the base of a baby’s finger or toe. The indentation will be clearly visible. The circulation to the affected digit can be affected, causing painful swelling. This is why the baby is crying. Hair tourniquets are fairly easy to remove manually or with the help of a tweezers. If you can’t get the hair off yourself, you may need to consult a physician about how to proceed.

crying not sleeping
Even snowmen get the blues

Other kinds of crying may indicate more serious conditions. If the baby cries inconsolably and then relaxes only to begin crying inconsolably several minutes later, the problem may be intestinal. If the baby then passes stool that looks bloody or like currant jelly, the reason for the crying may be one of several kinds of intestinal obstruction that require emergent medical attention.

Crying associated with certain kinds of vomiting also may merit medical attention. If the baby spits up yellow or green, this may also indicate a type of intestinal obstruction that merits urgent attention. If, when the baby throws up, she is able to hurl milk five or six feet, known as “projectile vomiting.” This too deserves urgent attention. If the crying is associated with fever, poor feeding, or any kind of abnormal appearance or abnormal behavior during the non-colicky times of the day (2: 00 a.m. to 10: 00 p.m.) when the baby should be acting normally, these are warning signs that you should probably contact your pediatrician.

Important Points To Remember:

  • If your baby is crying not sleeping from hunger, you’ve waited to long to feed her.  Feed her when she starts stirring from sleep, before she starts crying. But be careful not to over-feed!
  • She could be waking up because she’s uncomfortable. Make a checklist of all the things it could be: gas bubble, full diaper, etc.
  • If you use teas or sugar water, treat it like medicine: small amounts and infrequently.
  • Some babies start crying not sleeping because they just want to be held (and walked with!) You gotta do what you gotta do!
  • If all these possibilities have been eliminated, or if you have any concerns at all that something could be wrong, contact your pediatrician.


Published by

Rob Lindeman

Rob Lindeman is a sleep coach, entrepreneur, and writer living in Massachusetts. Ready to Get Rid of the Pacifier? Sign up for our FREE Video eCourse: The Paci-Free Method

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