My Preschooler Wakes Up Crying in the Middle of the Night

It is almost 2am and here I am writing.

Phoebie woke up about an hour ago, screaming and crying in her sleep. Nothing I did could soothe her and she would sweep her arms and legs as though there were things crawling on her. I checked her and failed to find anything.

Recently, she has been doing this almost every night. She would sleep for one to two hours and wake up crying, sometimes hysterically. She has been doing that so much that I practically wait for such episodes to happen, and try to comfort her and coax her back to sleep before I turn in for the night. I do this because I know I probably won’t be as patient with her if I was awakened by her non-stop crying.

This waking-to-cry issue happened when she was much younger and stopped for a long time. It started to reoccur after she recovered from a viral fever some time in March. And this reoccurrence has bugged me enough to make me google about it.

Ben and I read about night terrors who would wake up crying and how the child would cry inconsolably and stop crying just as abruptly. Children who are night terrors are like sleep-walkers. They don’t know and won’t recall what they did and shouldn’t be woken because they would get a fright. We concluded that Phoebie wasn’t a night terror because she would tell us what she wanted on some nights. Like she wanted water or a hug.

But some nights, she would just scream and not say a thing, like tonight. Tonight was confusing because she was screaming and crying and what I asked her what she wanted, she didn’t say anything and continued to scream while sweeping her arms and legs like something was crawling on her. I decided to quietly sing a song, in the hope of lulling her back to sleep.

It worked! For like… Five minutes… And the hysterical crying started again… This time, she told me, “My leg pain pain…” I checked both her legs and there was nothing… She refused a hug when I offered and continued to cry. She probably cried for five or ten minutes before she finally grabbed my arm and hugged it to sleep. And she has been sleeping soundly since.

Why oh why has she been waking up crying and screaming?

I googled this question again after she fell back asleep and got a few possible answers:
1. She could be having a bad dream (but that will mean a bad dream every night?)
2. She is having separation anxiety (but she doesn’t seem to have it when she’s awake)
3. She lacks sleep (but she naps every day around the same time and about the same amount of time)
4. She may be achieving a certain developmental milestone (which I don’t know what it is)
5. She could be unwell (nope, no signs of that).

I googled again and found some suggestions on what we can do to help Phoebie sleep better at night:
1. Continue to stick to her bedtime routine (which, for Phoebie, has been in place for a long time).
2. Adjust her bedtime progressively to an earlier time. (We’ll probably start with half an hour earlier and see how that works out).
3. Don’t rush into the room when she starts to cry.
4. Provide low-key assurance and gently pat her back without trying to pick her up or talking to her.

I do realize that when I try to comfort her by hugging or picking her up, Phoebie would stiffen her body and cry even louder. So I really need to force myself not pick her up and soothe her by patting her, or simply sitting beside her without talking to her.

Whatever the case, the only thing Ben and I can do is to wait out the phase. It can be tiring but there’s no other way. Oh, the life of being parents. Let’s just hope Phoebie sleeps better soon.


2 thoughts on “My Preschooler Wakes Up Crying in the Middle of the Night

  1. Oh, for these kinda waking in the middle of the night, the elders seem to have a good suggestion to curb that… they call it “hum bin” (hokkien for sleepless night). seems that the reason for Faith doing that is when she over played in the day time. When i say overplayed, i mean crazy fun screaming play. like really crazy. then at night, we’ll get it… the advice is, try to no let her play 1 hours (heck, to be safe, 2 hours!) before her bed time…. so slow activities with her, and as you mentioned, her bedtime routine to lull her to restfulness at bedtime… I guess the pushing her bedtime 1 hour forward should help too…

    and the best thing i’ve done myself, pray over her… pray for protection, pray for calmness, and just pray… it always works!

    it’s not easy to have a crying child in the middle of the night, and you dunno what to do with it. pray and hang on!
    jia you!

    • I know what u mean, Dawn. 🙂 We try not to over-stimulate her at night because we want her to sleep well. But it isn’t working with her. So there cld be other factors I guess. In any case, we can only wait out the phase. 🙂

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