Why do babies and young children cry at night?

Why do babies and young children cry at night?

There is almost always a reason when children under the age of 3 years cry during the night. Determining the cause of the crying can sometimes be a headache for the parents. When a child cries chronically during the night it can make it very difficult for the parents to figure out why. This often ends up making both the parents and child mentally and physically exhausted. In this article, I will give you a great idea of how to find both the physical and pathological causes of why children cry during the night.

1. The Physical Needs of Children

Most of the time children under 3 years of age, it is very difficult for them to explain what their body needs, especially for the children who are too young to physically do things to help themselves. These children use crying as a way of telling the parents or carer that they need help.

Common causes of crying could include feeling too cold, too warm, thirsty, hungry or eaten too much for dinner, nappy is too wet, itchy (sometimes itching only happens at night), in one position to long causing stiffness or discomfort in a part of the body, teething, too tired or not tired enough (ie. if they’ve slept too much during the day).

Suggestions for the physical needs of children

i) When a child begins to cry chronically during the day or the night, check the above common causes first.

ii) Help the child to set up a regular lifestyle or routine. Make sure the child has enough time for activity during the day so that they are ready to sleep at night.

Once a child has its own lifestyle or routine set up, the carers should be aware and respectful of that, whether it be parents, day-carers or babysitters.  It also helps to understand the individual character of a child. For example, how much food does a child prefer, what is their routine, what is their favourite music, what medication or illness do they currently have, what has the child done during the day. The person looking after a child can change but it is important not to change what the child is used to doing everyday – changing a child’s routine can be physically and mentally disturbing or upsetting to the child.

iii) Make sure the evening meal is an appropriate amount for the child and not too close to bed time.

iv) Check the environment – for example, make sure the room, the bed and the bed linen are clean of insects and bed bugs or other aggravating influences, including harsh laundry detergents used to wash the clothes and linen.

v) If none of these causes seem to fit, see further suggestions below.

2. The Emotional and Mental Needs of Children

Children need emotional care and communication.

The following emotional conditions can cause a child to cry, especially at night-time: waking during the night in the dark feeling lonely or scared and need some extra care at that moment; woken by dreams or some emotional issue which happened to them during the day; not feeling tired and wanting to play.

This sometimes even happens between ages 3-10 years.  Older children are able to get up and go to the parents’ bed to seek comfort.  For the younger children, the only way for them to get the attention they need is to cry.

Suggestions for the Emotional and Mental Needs of Children

i) Avoid bringing young children into loud, bustling environments, or fighting loudly around them, especially towards the end of the day.  Also avoid having the children near the television, especially when loud or violent shows are playing – even if they can’t see it, they can often still hear it!

ii) Children absorb their surroundings and come night-time, the overstimulation of their Liver & Heart during the day, can give them severe dreams causing them to be restless or wake during the night.  In the case where this has been unavoidable, the parents can give the restless child a cuddle and rub the forehead gently between the eyebrows to help calm emotional issues.

3. The Pathological Causes of Crying (Disorders and Diseases)

In my clinical experience, at least 40% of the causes for children crying at night-time is associated with a disorder or disease of the body.  This is especially due to many disorders being even worse at night-time and children don’t know how to explain this.

i) Indigestion (food stagnation / Spleen-Stomach Disorder)
The identifying characteristic of this disorder is that the child has an unsettled niggling cry (not loud) that comes and goes while they’re half awake and half asleep.  This type of cry indicates that the child is uncomfortable with their Stomach.  They toss and turn in their bed, with perspiration on the forehead and they are not interested in food or drink.

These children also have the following general symptoms: irregular bowel movements, constipation or loose stools, strong or foul-smelling stool which may be green with undigested food, stomach is bloated and passes a lot of wind, vomiting after their milk which may have a strong smell as though half digested or grinding teeth (for children old enough to have teeth).  These children are often very emotional.

ii) Stomach Pain (Liver-Spleen Disorder)
Stomach pain is a very common cause of children crying during the night.

The identifying characteristic of this disorder is that the child starts crying suddenly, the cry is very sharp and lasts longer.  The child’s posture is retracted, as though they’re trying to curl up to relieve the sharp pain in the abdomen.  They won’t stretch out or allow their stomach to be touched as this increases the pain.

These children also have the following general symptoms: very emotionally sensitive, easily anxious, increased dreams, take a while to fall asleep, cravings for certain foods , irregular or irritable bowel and passes a lot of wind.

iii) Growing Pains (Kidney Disorder)
Children commonly have growing pains between 5 and 10 years old.  The pains can feel more severe while they’re sleeping.  The pain is not very strong but is sometimes enough to wake them up from discomfort in the joints or legs.

iv) Blocked Nose & Sinuses (Lung Disorder)
After a common cold or flu, sometimes the child is left with a blocked nose or mucous congestion through the sinuses.  This makes it difficult for the child to breath properly while sleeping and can cause frontal headache.

After the child is cleared of the major symptoms of cold and flu, it is important to continue attending to the minor symptoms of the sinuses.

Suggestions for the Pathological Causes of Children Crying at Night

i) Many children’s indigestion and Stomach pain is associated with their diet and lifestyle during the day.  Make sure they’re eating regular meals with a comfortable temperature (not too extreme – not too cold & not too hot).  Allow them to eat in a relaxed environment, not running around (too much movement, talking and laughing while eating allows air to come in with the food and causes colic, cramps or bloating).

ii) Make sure the child is eating in a happy environment and that the child is not angry or emotional while eating – this will help avoid indigestion.

iii) Make sure each meal is nutritionally balanced – this will help avoid growing pains.

iv) For all of the disorders mentioned above, as well as others not mentioned in this article, it can be difficult to resolve the problem by yourself.  I suggest you seek medical attention. Chinese Medicine is one of the natural medicines which can help resolve these disorders.

4. How Does Chinese Medicine Help with Children Crying at Night?

i) Within the initial consultation we talk to you about your child’s physical, emotional and pathological issues.  We also discuss their food, environment and lifestyle.

ii) We will check the child by Traditional Chinese diagnosis methods (pulse, tongue, signs and symptoms, including the characteristics of the child’s cry).

iii) Finally we will find the cause of the child’s night time crying and provide recommendations for suitable diet and lifestyle changes.

iv)  For certain cases we will provide natural herbal medicine to balance the child’s internal organs or baby acupressure treatment (either by our practitioner or by parents).  The treatment with not only help the child stop crying at not but will resolve the main cause and therefore other associated symptoms as well.

Most of a child’s growing will be done while they sleep. Therefore getting a good sleep every night is very important for the development of the child and for the peace of mind of the parents!

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Dr Ping Wang is the clinic founder and senior practitioner of Ping Ming Health. She has over 30 years of experience in traditional Chinese medicine teaching and practice. Dr Ping especially enjoys sharing her knowledge of Chinese medicine through our popular clinic articles, seminars and clinical training of students and practitioners.

  • Mathews

    Thank you for your valuable notes. This looks simple but help each parents a lot.

    Good work.

    17 December, 2012
  • brucewayne

    Your opinion will help the parents to the great extent.

    21 July, 2015
  • Dr. yusuf

    hello. i am very grateful about the article, highly interesting.

    10 July, 2018